Rule No. 1: Do not cast unsupervised.

Kennick laid out his supplies: his notes, the spellbook he’d taken them down from, and the small lumpy stone from the garden.

He planted the latter right in front of where he sat crosslegged on his bedroom floor. He took a long, slow breath, carefully pulling the energy he’d swiped from the master reserve into a mass inside the center of his chest. He extended his hands over the stone, consulted his notes.

He took another breath. Channeling the energy up through the bones of his ribcage, through his shoulders and down his arms, he stared intently at the rock and said, “Náothrë, täthümkáel.”

The energy burst from his fingertips and wrapped around the stone in a glowing, sparking halo.

Náothrë, täthümkáel,” he said again, focusing hard. He hunched over, trying to blot out everything that wasn’t the rock, the energy, the words, the warm, buzzing connection with the Lifeblood. The words sounded perfect to him. Perfectly memorized, perfectly executed.

Irix probably wouldn’t say so, but it was working, regardless.

He imagined exactly what he wanted. His clear purpose for the stone. Every time he uttered the phrase, his connection with the stone strengthened, a gradual stiffening of his spine.

And as the connection grew, the stone levitated, pulling slowly up toward the space between his palms.

A slow smile stole across his face.

He tripped over the last syllable of the fourth repetition, and the stone flashed suddenly to the side, crashing straight through a pane of glass in the balcony doors and disappearing over the terrace.

The energy cord snapped unbidden and Kennick gasped, pulled slightly aside by the distinct feeling of its ripping from each wrist.

He sat there on his knees, gaping at the circle of broken glass across the room. Massaging his wrists, he slowly raised himself to his feet and stole over to the doors to look out.

Cynneth the groundskeeper was in the yard below, picking something up out of the grass. She glanced up, and they made eye contact. Kennick backed up, abruptly. He stood still in his room, eyes wide, heart pounding. He looked at the books on the floor.

Irix was going to kill him.

He turned and padded urgently to the door, down the hallway, and down the stairs. He grabbed his shoes by the door and cut through the sunroom toward the garden.

Cynneth met him on his way out the door at the back of the sunroom. The stone was in her callused hand, which looked small and dextrous when free of her heavy gardener’s gloves.

“What is this, Master Kennick?” she said, eyebrows raised.

Kennick swallowed his deep sense of mortality. “A rock, ma’am.”

“Did you throw it through your bedroom window?”

Kennick nodded and hung his head, hoping she would think him destructive, pass it off as a symptom of early puberty, and leave it at that.

She was studying the rock.

“There’s soot on it,” she said.

Kennick swallowed.

“You were practicing without the master’s permission, weren’t you?”

“Please don’t tell her,” Kennick said, fearfully.

Cynneth’s lips tightened sympathetically.

“Sorry, boya. You know I can’t do that.” She tucked the stone into the pocket of her overalls with a sigh. “So…Do you want me to tell her, or shall I let you do it?”

Kennick felt a sucking sensation in his chest. His head was still buzzing with traces of the extra energy in his system, the rumor of the broken energy cord like nails on a chalkboard in his sensory memory.

“I’ll tell her,” Kennick said.

“Good,” Cynneth said. She didn’t hand over the evidence. “Sweep up the broken glass. I’ll go up and tape the hole until we can replace the panel, all right?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Kennick said.

Cynneth nodded. Before she turned to go, she pointed a finger at him. “As soon as she gets home, you tell her.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Kennick said.

The edges of the house seemed to loom in over him as Kennick stole back into the house and crept into the kitchen, hunting for a broom. Open, breathless, waiting.

He glanced at the square clock on the kitchen wall. Irix would be home in an hour.

He stared at it, clutching the broom in his fatigued, jittery hands. One more hour to live, he thought dismally.

Paths crossed

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?”

“…yes…but—”

“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*

Snake Wrangler

A/N: Kennick is too old for a proper governness, not that Irix thinks she needs additional house staff to manage him. Edhard Delaine is the head of Irix’s household security, which incidentally includes miscellaneous tasks not included in his job description, such as chasing down the baby mage.

+++

Edhard appeared in the doorway of Kennick’s room. “Master Kennick, you’re to get ready for—”

Kennick was over the side of the bed in an instant, catching himself on his hands and propelling himself toward the side door.

Edhard jumped. “Hey—Kenn—”

He leaped for Kennick’s serpentine lower half, but Kennick managed to pull it out in time. He heard Edhard scramble up as he grabbed the corner and pulled himself around it.

Any moment, he expected to feel Edhard’s grip. He had to find some way to lose him, somewhere to hide. There was no way Kennick was going to a political meeting and pretending he wasn’t slowly turning into a snake in front of royals and politicians, while pretending he understood or even cared what they droned on and on about.

He spotted a window. It had a ledge. If he could access it in time, he’d be able to hang on it and cling to the trellis below and hopefully throw off Edhard’s pursuit. Irix couldn’t drag him anywhere if she couldn’t find him.

He veered toward the opening to freedom.

A body slammed down around his tail. A tug stopped Kennick dead. He lost his momentum, along with the balance of his torso.

Frantic, he planted his hands underneath him, pulling and reaching up for the sill.

“Oh no you don’t—” Edhard said, clawing his way up Kennick’s flank.

The floor tiles offered a poor anchor. Kennick could shift his tail under Edhard’s grip if he twisted it right. Maybe if he jerked everything to the side—

But then Edhard was on top of Kennick’s back, and Kennick’s torso was pinned. His tail looped and thrashed behind Edhard, while Kennick pulled uselessly. Edhard had the physique of a brick wall. His hands planted on Kennick’s shoulders.

“Come on, Master Kennick,” he said as Kennick struggled. “You can handle being bipedal for a couple hours.”

“Last time was horrible!” Kennick’s tail collided with the wall. He could get it out and over the sill, but he might hurt Edhard if they both fell. “I start feeling sick after 30 minutes! And I puff up like a biscuit and everyone can tell—”

Edhard pushed Kennick’s shoulders flat with a grunt. “Your master is waiting.”

“I’m not going,” Kennick huffed.

“I don’t think that option was on the table…”

“I’ll be sick then,” Kennick said. “You’re breaking my ribs, anyway…”

“Sorry…” Edhard gingerly eased himself up from Kennick’s torso.

Kennick tried to bolt immediately—an act which earned him a headlock.

He squirmed, gripping Edhard’s clamped arms. He shifted and wrapped his tail around Edhard’s legs, trying to pull him off, but the guard held fast.

The more Kennick pulled, the more he pulled his own neck. He stopped, finally, to catch his breath.

Edhard’s breathing had deepened as well. His body was humid around Kennick’s face. Between breaths, Edhard began to laugh. “Never a dull moment,” he said with a sigh of a scoff. “Never a dull moment…”

Kennick slowly released him. “I’m not going,” he said again, strained.

“Are you now?” Edhard seemed content to lie there on the floor, Kennick’s still-attached head as his prize.

“I can’t,” Kennick said into Edhard’s sleeve. “I’ll be bipedal while Irix is gone, if she wants, but I’ll transform at home—not in high society.”

“I’m afraid there’s nothing to negotiate,” Edhard said gently.

Kennick moaned.

“I had a feeling this would happen.”

Kennick looked up. His master stood over them, arms crossed.

Kennick exchanged a glance with Edhard.

Irix sighed. “Thank you, Edhard. You can let him go.”

Edhard hesitated. Kennick considered resuming his attempted escape, but thought better of it as the guard released him.

Edhard helped pull Kennick upright. Then he brushed himself off, tipped a polite nod, and departed, scooping his hat up off the floor as he went.

Kennick waited, chagrined.

“Stay put,” Irix said.

Kennick nodded, looking at the floor.

“So what is all this?”

“Can’t we wait until I’ve fixed this?” Kennick mumbled.

“We can’t put anything on hold,” Irix said. “I have enough portable energy reserves to last you all night if necessary.”

Kennick made a face. He preferred to use the master reserve downstairs in the temple with its warm, crackling energy. The portable energy reserves were angry little electrocution boxes. Callous, abrupt. Like shooting lightning up his nose.

“I’d have to use them every two hours,” Kennick said. “And because you won’t have a moment, I’ll have to transform all the way in order to revert back. That’s a waste of energy, and I’ll have to do it in some bathroom somewhere. Some of those fancy bathrooms are really small.”

“Maybe,” Irix said. “But you won’t have to do it more than three times—at the very most.”

Kennick’s expression darkened. “If I was sick with a virus, you’d let me stay home.”

“Life goes on even when participation is hard to stomach,” Irix said simply. “If we waited for perfect conditions, we’d never accomplish anything.”

Kennick rolled his eyes.

Irix flicked his forehead. “None of that, Kennick.”

“Sorry.” Kennick rubbed his forehead.

Irix turned. “Come on, then. Get ready and meet me down in the temple in half an hour with your trousers and other effects. You can revert right before we leave.”

“And if I’m late?”

Irix didn’t turn around. “You don’t want to be late.”

Kennick crossed his arms. The door to the hallway closed behind her.

Kennick frowned. He’d been punished by his master enough times to know that suffering through the night’s political meeting with his current affliction was probably better than finding out what Irix had had in mind.

With an exasperated groan, he directed himself back to his bedroom.

He should have planned this out better.

The Ghost Prince

“Why did you take your coverings off outside?” Evin’s governess, Gwinna sighed as she applied a pungent glob of salve to the raw skin on the back of the boy’s otherwise colorless neck. “And why did you leave them off for so long?”

Evin winced. He looked at the reddened skin of his burned hands. A little closer, he thought. A little closer to the color he should have been.

Though he was still very far off.

“It was too hot,” Evin said quietly. His mask and hood breathed well enough, but the canvas chafed against his face. The coat it was attached to became humid if he ran, especially in the summer.

Not to mention the garb looked stupid. He hated it.

The only part of him people could see were his eyes, but only through large tinted glasses—which didn’t fit his face properly and constantly slipped down his nose.

Everyone knew Evin couldn’t set foot in the sun without being covered head-to-toe. Yet Stephan and the other kids always insisted on playing outside anyway. It was supposedly more fun.

Evin had freed himself that afternoon. Just once, to see for himself how expensive it was. They didn’t understand how good they had it.

A door opened and the smug, violet face of his older brother appeared.

“Hey old man,” Stephan said. “How’s the ectoplasm?”

“Shut up,” Evin muttered.

“Stephan,” Gwinna said. “I think your brother needs some space right now.”

Stephan smiled and shrugged. He sauntered out to the balcony and disappeared over the side.

“You know how dangerous it is for you to be out in the sun,” Gwinna said. “Don’t ever take your coverings off outside again, all right? I know you don’t like it, but it’s not worth hurting your health over.”

Evin nodded dismally.

Everyone in the whole world got to have some sort of color: Red, orange, burgundy…And how could Evin, a kid who happened to belong to a family with a very specific, important skin tone, be the only one denied?

Poor Evin, they said. Had to be cursed, they said. The royal family was always dark violet. What had the king and queen done, people whispered, to deserve to have a child without pigment?

“This is going to blister…” Gwinna sighed, gently applying the salve to his face. She lifted a hand to rub some in the part in his white hair. “Thank goodness you kept your glasses on out there.”

Evin nodded, narrowing his red-violet eyes at the tiles beneath his feet.

At least Dilikí had one proper heir.

+++

A/N: Diliken tend to be superstitious, and rather shallow in some circles. It’s just a genetic defect, guys. Everybody calm down.

Still, 13 years later, Evin did rise to the head of the monarchy. How? We shall see.

Royal Bicarbonate of Soda

A/N: Stacea doesn’t quite understand that regular people really can’t smell as well as she does. But everyone else just thinks she’s either being sensitive or metaphorical most of the time. Perthaeam are kind of like highly territorial guard dogs with a knack for sensing things that lie beneath the surface. Two days’ time will reveal for Kennick and Irix what’s afoot.

+++

“Aría.” Stacea stepped up beside her, an empty silver tray tucked under her arm. “What do you make of that kid over there?”

Aría surveyed the guests in the direction indicated by Stacea’s tilt of head.

She spotted him, standing along the edges of the reception, mouth clamped shut and eyes staring straight ahead. His entire demeanor was an inward moan of social anxiety.

Aría ducked her head closer to Stacea. “What about him?”

“What do you make of him?”

“He looks uncomfortable to me. I didn’t see who he arrived with—seems too young to have come alone. Who does he belong to?”
“He smells like a reptile to me…” Stacea said quietly. “I don’t like him.”

Aría hesitated, confused. “Like he can’t be trusted, you mean?” She didn’t know if calling someone a reptile was an insult in Dilikí as it was in Kaladría.

“I don’t know,” Stacea murmured. “It puts me on edge.”

The boy winced. His hand found its way to the gold vest, over his abdomen.

“You really don’t smell it?”

Aría abruptly handed her tray to Stacea, startling her. “Hold this for a second.”

Once the tray was out of her possession, she ignored Stacea’s hissed protestations and threaded through the satin and conversation to the kid leaning against the wall.

The boy noticed her with a start.

“Excuse me, sir,” Aría said gently. “Are you all right?” She could practically feel Stacea’s dismay boring a hole in the back of her head, but she didn’t look away from the king’s guest. “Can I get you anything?”

The boy looked at her, wide-eyed, as if cornered. He pulled his hand off his vest and pinned it to his side.

He was sweating. “No, I’m fine,” he said. “Thank you—” His breath caught. He swallowed. “Actually, where is the bathroom? Sorry…”

“Here, let me show you,” Aría said. “It’s just outside of these doors down the hallway.”

The boy moved after her, his hand finding its way to his middle again. “Thank you, ma’am.”

Aría hadn’t expected an honorific toward her to come from his mouth. She led him out into the silent hallway, watching him in her peripheral vision. He kept his gaze on the floor, eyes tight.

“Really, can I get you anything?” she ventured again as they came upon the door. “Soda water, perhaps?”

The boy cracked a wan smile and reached for the doorknob. “No, thank you.” He opened the door.

“If you change your mind just let any of us know, all right?” Aría tugged lightly on the black collar of her servant’s uniform.

The boy nodded and slipped into the bathroom. As Aría stepped away, she thought she heard the sound of vomiting.

She hesitated. The door from another one of the rooms opened and Aría jumped to make herself scarce. She stole down the hallway, ducked into the servant’s passage, and headed straight to the kitchen to continue her assigned task for the night.

She would keep an eye out for him, she decided, and possibly swing by the bathroom later to make sure he was all right.

+++

Kennick dragged himself out from behind the heavy bathroom door. As he unsteadily made his way toward the ballroom, the door opened to betray his master.

“Where have you been?” Irix said.

Kennick gestured behind him. “In the bathroom, hurling chips.”

Irix let the door shut. Her expression softened as she strode up to him. “That’s not good…” She put a hand on his forehead. “You don’t feel feverish…And what did I say about colloquialisms?”

“Sorry…” Kennick said.

“You haven’t been drinking have you?”

Kennick shook his head. “Just juice, water, and food, as you said.”

Irix crossed her arms. “Have you been feeling sick today? Are you nervous? Did you drink tap water somewhere?”

Kennick shook his head again. He winced at a sharp jab of pain in his abdomen. “I think it’s passing.” And he thought he’d already adjusted to upper class tap water.

“Good.” She considered his face. “I have another couple of hours before we can leave. Can you make it that long?”

“Yes, I think so,” Kennick said. He felt like he was lying, but he thought he’d be fine sitting still and sipping water. If he could just be with his master, he’d be all right. People didn’t usually talk to him much if he was near her.

Half an hour later, the maid who’d shown him to the bathroom found him in the parlor, reclined in an easy chair near where his master sat at a table talking with colleagues. The maid offered a well-meaning smile and handed him a squat wine glass with a cloudy, fizzing liquid inside.

“For your stomach, sir,” she said quietly. She didn’t sound Diliken, or Arkanian as far as Kennick could tell. “I hope you’re feeling better.”

“Thank you.” Kennick flashed a wan smile as he took the glass. Irix glanced back, making eye contact first with Kennick, then the servant before giving a single, appreciative nod, and returning her attention to what the man across from her was saying.

The maid bobbed a respectful curtsy before pivoting around and taking her leave.

Kennick watched her go, gingerly raising the glass to his lips.

+++

“Stacea,” Aría lowered her voice as she accompanied her back toward the kitchen. “That kid you don’t like? I think he’s with Irix Ingram.”

Stacea glanced back, the side of her nose scrunching up. “You were babying the apprentice of Irix Ingram?” She looked aside thoughtfully. “No wonder he smells strange.”

“She has an apprentice?”

“How did you find out who he was?”

“He was sitting by her in the parlor when I gave him soda water.”

Stacea brought a hand to her forehead. “Aría, that’s not your job.” She looked up at her. “Wait—you mean you were close to his master?”

“We made eye contact…Can you believe that?”

“You not only handed her apprentice an unapproved beverage, but you handed it to him right in front of her? She could have thought it was poison, for all we know. What if she took offense?”

“She looked kind of grateful, actually.” Aría ducked her head. She lowered her voice further as they entered the kitchen, “I just wanted to help the kid. He looked so miserable. And the posh and starch of these sort of things are bad enough without throwing up in a king’s bathroom—”

Stacea shot her a warning look as they neared the table where the kitchen staff was busily filling trays with more appetizers.

Aría picked up a tray. “He’s with his master now. I’ll leave him alone, all right?”

Stacea’s lips tightened as she picked up a tray of her own. “That would be best.”