(Time: Seventh Hour, Two Minutes)
It was early in the morning a few days later when Kacey and Yvette set out into the city hoping that they might encounter one or more of the Resurrection Cultivators. LeAnn had said that Tasia lived on a farm while the others resided in the large city, and that made the odds slim of meeting any of them . . . but it was still possible, and irresistible to attempt while they made some needed deliveries.
"A chance," Kacey murmured as they approached the city's marketplace. "For us to finally, maybe, have the daughters—or sons!—that we all have longed to have. I don't expect them to come in as Racine did, lacking any parents at all, but perhaps there is a need we can fill in them as they will in us. Oh, I hope so much to be able to love this Dual Cultivator of Daffodil with all my heart."
"Dane and I were talking about that too," Yvette admitted. "How even though this potentially unusual Iris Cultivator may already be an adult, she might be the daughter we have longed for." She began to smile. "And, maybe, a little bit, we can't help but be extra hopeful she will be. I mean . . . think about it. Who is the person who has gotten the Ice Flower Element attack magic that no Iris Defender ever did?"
Kacey grinned. "Your husband."
"And now, suddenly, our potential heir may have both his and my magic and be the Lead? It sort of feels . . . coincidental."
"Ah! Bad language!" Kacey wagged a finger at her and then became more serious. "I wonder about this happening. I can't help but look at history, at what Liena once warned Genevieve and Hannah about before Evan and Robert were born. How it was only the intergalactic blood in Matthew and Quint that allowed for male Rulers to be born because our galaxy had become so inbred in its magic. We saw the evidence of it more in LeAnn and Reagan. They both got double doses of that intergalactic blood, meaning both are half, and yet they are barely deviated from the coloring of their lineages."
"Just enough to be safe," Yvette agreed. "Just enough to promise they should be safe to have their own children to inherit their Ruler magic. But the rest of us have no intergalactic blood, and except for you, did not mate to anyone with intergalactic blood."
"And yet Talon and I have not had a child of our own. Perhaps Destiny is rebooting the lineages entirely. The presence of two male Defender Cultivators is promising enough, let alone with them being Dual. Robert and Evan could not pass on their Ruler magic, but I would expect that the Aster and Gladiolus ones will be able to." Kacey shook her head. "I've been a doctor for five thousand years. I still get befuddled when science and magic play at odds."
Yvette laughed at that as she swung around a corner, but the laughter halted abruptly as she ran headlong into a taller female with enough force that they both went tumbling and the papers both had been carrying went flying. "Yvette!" Kacey knelt next to her friend quickly. "Are you okay?"
"I haven't been hit that hard since I ran into Arista that one time," she said ruefully. She looked at the woman she had hit and went very still. It could not be so simple, could it? When did Destiny ever oblige so obviously?! "Kacey," she breathed.
Kacey looked, and she felt her heart stop briefly as she saw the purple and yellow streaks of hair. She then looked closer and her eyes widened as she discovered Destiny had been more devious than they all thought. Tasia, she suddenly realized. A nickname for the full name she had seen on a medical chart. "Well, hello," she said. "It's been a long time."
Tasia smiled at them both a bit ruefully. "Of all the ridiculous luck. I did not really intend to run you over, Your Majesties. And I would offer to bow, but we're already on the ground!"
"You know her?" Yvette asked Kacey.
"I do. She was the child with that terrible accident that they called me in for two decades ago. The one who released that piercing mental cry when she was in danger that gave several of our friends headaches." She smiled at Tasia. "I'm glad to see you thriving! How are your lungs?"
"A terrible pain at times, and the asthma still tries to kill me, but I've gotten to where it takes extremes for that." She flipped agilely to her feet without any trouble, and then winced when both queens stared at her. "Sorry. I always forget that people get weird when I do that."
Yvette stood and smiled wryly. "You remind me of a friend." She held out her hand palm up, almost deliberately. "I am Yvette Iris. This is my dear friend Kacey Daffodil, though I think you well knew that."
"Tasia Martine. And yes. I did." Tasia pressed her palm against Yvette's to return the greeting.
The punch powered all the way through Yvette's soul of sheer, raw, majik. Limitless majik. Infinite majik. It was an unnerving realization for only the two Apexes had infinite power of any sort. This witch rivaled the Apexes. How was she still a witch at all?!
Tasia removed her hand and glanced back over her shoulder. "You're late."
Raine skidded to a stop beside her. "If you wouldn't run," she said in exasperation, "you wouldn't always leave me behind! And you wouldn't run over hapless queens." She turned and saluted sassily. "Raine Peacer. Nice you meet you."
She resembled Talon so strongly that Kacey felt a smile beginning to spread. "I'm so happy to meet both of you." She sighed at both of them. "Must you be so tall?"
Raine grinned at her. "I'm barely taller than you! Like two inches maybe." Under her breath, so soft only Tasia heard, she added, "And our jobs will be easier than yours for it." She shook it off and studied Kacey, her healer's gifts warbling loudly. "When are you due?" she asked.
Kacey stared at her. "I beg your pardon?"
"Uhm. Uh-oh." Raine looked at Tasia, who nodded in confirmation, and then turned back. "Er, Your Majesty . . . you did know you're pregnant . . . right?"
"I'm what?!" Kacey slowly shook her head. "I can't be!"
Raine stared at her. "No, no you can be, because you really are. I'm a witch," she offered, "who has Physical Healing as one of her skills. The other is Sensing. So I'm really damn good at diagnosing people even without touching them. You are definitely pregnant, and far enough along even science is going to notice it. I'd put you at . . . hmm. A month along? Maybe a little over it. Sorry for assuming you knew but . . . well, you are a healer as well."
"Intergalactic blood," Tasia intoned. "Best fertility drug in the galaxy."
Yvette very nearly laughed. How could she not love this sassy Ice Cultivator? "I will make sure she goes to see High Queen Sayena, our other healer," she promised Raine. "But I have never doubted any witch's healing gift of any sort!" She cocked her head. "You confirmed it with Tasia." She looked at the woman in reference. "You have healing as well?"
"I have . . . a lot of skills."
"No shit," Raine groused. She suddenly blinked as she looked at the ground and discovered a veritable mess from the papers Tasia and Yvette alike had dropped. "Tasi, we need those to give to Maya."
"Huh?" Tasia looked down. "Well, damn." She knelt and began to gather her papers quickly.
"Ooh. Me too!" Yvette knelt to help and sorted out what was hers. "I didn't even notice! I need to get these to my design company today. You?"
"Uhm, somewhere." Tasia closed her folder defensively. "Nowhere special." She edged backwards down the sidewalk. "We, uhm, have to go." In a blink, she had turned and run off with Raine close behind.
"Now what on Daffodil would make her turn shy?" Kacey asked in exasperation. She had pushed down the shocking news of her pregnancy until she could see Sayena and evaluate what the weighted hells had happened. At the least, now she had a better respect for the past when she had told an unsuspecting Hannah and Genevieve that they were pregnant with daughters! Talk about karmic irony. "I've never known anyone in that bloodline to be shy!" She blinked as a paper was shoved in front of her face. "What's this?"
She did as told and found herself instantly falling into the story. The words were so vivid that she felt as if she watched a film theatrical in her mind. She slowly lowered the page. "Well. I guess that would be a little embarrassing. Cold Steel is the most famous author-artist duo in the galaxy. Don't we have first editions of everything?"
"And some seconds because we don't like to share." Yvette reverently tucked the page into her folder. "She got the first page of my designs for the new school, and I got the first page of her story. We're going to need to exchange them soon."
It dawned on Kacey. "Well," she said again. She blew out a breath. "No matter how many times I observe it, it still somehow surprises me when Destiny makes her moves."
(Seventh Hour, Fifty-Seven Minutes)
"What do you mean the first page is missing?" Tasia scowled deeply at the older woman she was talking to in the center of the vast marketplace. The outdoors shopping center rivalled the indoors one for sheer size and scale in Protea City, but it also had the benefit of hosting dozens of handcrafted artisans, farmers' stalls, and specialty items. Big store shopping happened at the center, farm fresh groceries and specialty shopping happened at the market.
One of those special spots happened to be Maya Merideth's overstocked cart loaded down with books of all shapes, sizes, and genres. She had been a publisher for almost two decades, and was also an old friend of Olivia Martine's. She had actually not realized the first Cold Steel manuscript to hit her desk had been written by her surrogate niece until after she had offered a contract. Tasia and Raine had used a friend's PCA code and made themselves a new spider mail address for contact info.
Maya had not exactly been surprised by the revelation, though. She had wondered how long it would take until Tasia's love of writing got past her ruthless control. The girl did not like admitting how much she and her father had in common. Arthur Martine had been an award-winning journalist as well as a novelist in his spare time. He had instilled a deep love of words in his daughter from an early age, and even his disappearance hadn't taken it away from her; still, Tasia's lack of a desire to associate with her father came across clearly in the use of her pen name. Maya just felt glad she had gotten far enough to even put her work out there; a world without the fantastical that Cold Steel brought would be a boring world indeed.
"Exactly what I said." Maya stood up from the stool she was sitting on behind her cart and walked around to the other side where Tasia stood. Raine had been there for a while but she had taken off to meet up with her fiancé. Tasia was leaning on the corner of the cart with careful balance so she wouldn't fall over or knock books to the ground. The latest generation of PCAs had brought the ability to buy and read books on the device itself, but half the galaxy still loved the feel of paper in their hands, meaning Maya had not lost sales in the onset of digital books but gained them by expanding her reach.
She held out the folder Tasia had given her, and Tasia flipped past the cover sheet to see the first page had indeed come out. In its place was a rather lovely rendition of a design for a school playroom. "Oh, that's pretty." Tasia ran a finger over it. "I like the layout! It must belong to Queen Yvette. She had said she was going to the design studio. Guess I had better get this back to her."
"You could take it to the studio for her," Maya offered.
"No," Tasia murmured, "I am very certain I am supposed to take this to her directly." She stuck it into her bag. "Give me a piece of paper and a pen, and I will very quickly rewrite out that missing page. When is your PCM getting fixed? I could also just send you the electronic file, as I normally do."
"It'll be back tomorrow, but I can get started on reading today."
Personal Computation Machines—PCMs—did a bigger and better job of half the things a PCA did. In fact, the PCA had been made by taking the most popular elements of a PCM and shrinking them down. There were still only things the PCMs could do, including writing without using pen and paper in more than just a short note style. Tasia had not been bothered to print her manuscript to go with Raine's drawings since it happened so rarely, but now she deeply suspected other forces at play.
She took the paper and pen offered and braced a hip to start writing quickly. Her great capacity for learning and remembering had placed her into what was affectionately called 'rubber brain' territory, which measured intelligence in people, and it allowed for her memory to work nearly photographically for most things. She had done all of her schooling through childhood in advanced classes, and had then accelerated through advanced university classes to graduate over a year early. Her same-age friends had only just finished their own courses, and Storm had only recently started.
"Did you give me the 'steel' paper?" she joked as she wrote.
"Well, of course!" Maya grinned. "It seemed fitting."
Paper came in two types: that made of recycled glass, and that made of recycled metal. They worked effectively identically, and even inside those two categories, there was great variety in how the papers could be used. The quickest way to tell them apart was how they felt: glass always felt a bit warm, and metal always felt a bit cool. Maya selected her print papers very carefully for each book, and Cold Steel always got printed on, well, metal.
Tasia handed the paper and pen back after a few minutes and watched as Maya read over it quickly. She made a few notes on the paper for her own sake, mostly to clear Tasia's often sloppy writing, and then she grinned and tucked the page into place in the manuscript. "Branching into mysteries now?"
"I felt like a slight change of pace." Tasia grinned. "It's still romance, still has the fantasy element, but now I've tossed in some suspense and maaaybe just a touch of thriller. Aren't you glad the servants didn't do it?"
"That trope is so old, it started in the Harmonic Era! And I still didn't expect you to go where you did in the last one," she groused in return. "I thought I knew who was behind it four different times only to feel dumb when I realized the truth."
It made Maya laugh as she tucked the manuscript somewhere for safety. She started to reach for her coffee when she spotted a bundle sitting patiently behind the cart. She gasped as she straightened. "Oh! I had almost forgotten!" She pulled the three wrapped books out and held them out to Tasia. "I hate to impose but can you take these to the market overpass and give them to someone?"
"Not a problem . . . but why? Why can't they come pick them up?" Tasia tucked the books under her arm and wondered if this was another of her charity jobs; Maya worked loyally for Protea and often donated books to either the children's Care House or to families living on government stipend so their funds went further each month. The stipend was available to anyone who did not or could not work, or who did and yet did not bring in enough to help their family. It ensured all could live with relative comfort on Protea (or Delphinium, who had the same policy) but to help the stipend go further and build up savings, businesses like Maya offered donations to different people.
"Because she tries not to be seen getting freebies. She and her brother are living off the grid, so to speak, and both love to read avidly. They're addicted to your stories in particular." Maya indicated the three books. "One of yours is in there actually. Since today is the first Sunday of the month, it's time to drop those off for them. You'll be meeting either a woman about your age with slate hair, or a man slightly younger with black hair. Oh, actually, just look for streaks," she thought to add. "Like yours, but different colors. The woman has blue and white, the young man has ultramarine and purple."
"Hmm. Alright." She didn't really bat a lash at the errand. She tried to help out where she could as well. She had always been driven to give aid wherever it was needed. "See you later, Maya."
She set off through the crowd and wove her way in and out gracefully as she headed for the river on the other side. Spanning the river was a large overpass that led over into the first suburbs of Protea; the river went straight through the city and then circled back around the palace. The overpass was not only passable by electric carriage, but by foot and bicycle as well, and all three had their own lanes separated by fat painted lines for safety. Although, it was usually safe even if the lines had been smaller. Carriages had slowly evolved over the last few millennia to be far harder to lose control over, and they could not go over certain speeds within city limits because of magical interference. If you wanted to speed, you had to go out of a city to a specialized track where you could do it without hazard to others.
She had barely started to take in the breathtaking scenery—as expected for a city on a world with Nature as its Flower Element, it was utterly dripping in flora and fauna alike—before she heard the sounds of a scuffle and cursing. Quiet enough to not be heard by the market not far behind her, but not quiet enough to escape her hypersensitive ears.
She ran up the pass quickly and looked down the slope to the other side, taking in the scene with a single look. A woman roughly her age stood in the middle of a fight with two other women of roughly the same age, though they just felt younger in some way. All wore similar rough clothing, so it may well have been an in-fight among rabble rousers, but that seemed unlikely given the location. The woman had slate hair and burnished coal skin, and a face more lively than lovely, though right now she looked highly pissed off as she tried to avoid being hit by one of the sticks the other two held.
Tasia had never doubted her instincts. She took a step forward only for the woman to shoot her a quick, warning, look from pine colored eyes. Tasia paused obligingly, but after seeing no improvement in the scene, she ignored the request and put her books and bag down. She calmly walked over and smoothly stepped up beside the other dark-skinned woman. "Let's even these odds, shall we?" The woman looked up at her in surprise, and she felt anew that curious tug of companionship she had felt from her other friends. Understanding dawned, and her eyes moved quickly over her partner's hair. There, buried in the locks, was a blue streak over one eye and a white one over the other. Bingo.
The two opponents had begun to whisper furiously, and the slate-haired woman glared at Tasia. "Go away," she muttered. "You don't want to join me. This is just between rabble rousers."
"Why?" she echoed.
"Why are you fighting?"
She opened her mouth and then closed it. In a mutter, she said, "I quit the group a few years ago, but they didn't take it well. I only joined them to help out me and my little brother."
"So you're not a rabble rouser anymore," Tasia told her, "and that means it's not an in-fight, and they're just assholes." She nodded. "In that case, I'm assuredly helping. Besides, even if you were in-fighting, I'd take your side. It's unfair."
Emily Lukan could only stare at the taller female in sheer disbelief. "You are weird."
"I've been told that before." She smoothly stepped in front of her future friend as she saw the conversation end. Her eyes narrowed. "I think you both know you don't want to push me on this. Most rabble rousers around Protea City know that." Her mystical voice took on a warning cadence that shivered like ice. The swirl of power moved across her pupils. "Leave."
Emily slowly widened her eyes as she recognized the audible compulsion in her voice, and then, to her utter shock, the two other women turned and walked away. They just . . . left. "Wow," she said. "Talk about useful! How'd you do that? Hypnotism?"
Tasia smiled wryly as she turned around. "Something like that." She held a hand out palm up. "Tasia Martine."
"Emily Lukan." She eyed Tasia's hand for a long moment and then reluctantly reached out to place her palm on it.
Tasia's eyes slid down to see why she was so reluctant and spotted the reason instantly. There was a very nasty scrape across the back of her hand, and it bled sullenly. Dangerous anger filled her eyes. "Did they do that?"
"Yeah, so?" Emily's eyes widened as her companion cursed softly. It was a curious feeling to think someone had been angered on her behalf. More still . . . she felt safe. She would be safe if this person was there. She could lead her out of any trouble. Unnerved, she muttered, "It's nothing."
"And the castle is only a big house." Tasia very nearly started to use majik to heal the wound when she felt a premonition down her back that warned her to leave it. She changed her mind and instead pulled out a handkerchief and handed it over. "Cover it so it won't be exposed to air, and then wash it thoroughly tonight." She shook her head and went back to where she had left the books. "I assume you're the one I was supposed to meet to drop these off."
Emily looked up from where she was tying the handkerchief around her hand and spotted the books. Delight and eagerness filled her gaze and banished the cynical look that had been dominant before. "You assume right."
Tasia studied her. "Do you live on a stipend?"
Emily blinked at her. "Because . . . I'm not eligible?"
"And who told you that?" Tasia made a disgusted noise. "Is that how rabble rousers recruit kids? They lie to orphans about their options and make it seem like theirs is the only way. Emily, anyone is eligible, especially an adult. You're twenty-five, right?"
"Ish. I turn twenty-five at the end of this month."
"Close enough. You're very eligible, and your brother would be yours to be guardian of."
Emily admitted softly, "We're not blood related."
"So?" Tasia shrugged. "I don't think the kingdom is going to demand proof that you're siblings if you're both cognizant and able of insisting it. Honestly, you seem like the sort of person Protea loves to help get on their feet. You could get a decent place to live, and you both could go to university. It's free to attend, so you'd only need living expenses, which, hey, the stipend covers!" She leaned in and poked Emily in the nose. "Whatever you think it is that you've needed to do, you have had no need to do at all. You had the ability and smarts to get yourself out of a bad situation, and now you can turn bad into good and maybe great."
"You sound like you think you know everything," Emily muttered.
"I do." Tasia straightened again and picked up her bag. "I've said my piece, so I'll be on my way now. I still have things to do before I go home. Like grocery shopping," she muttered under her breath as she walked away. She hated grocery shopping. She always found herself caught in the fruit section by overzealous fans of her orchards.
It suddenly dawned on Emily that she had never thanked Tasia for what she had done. She hurried after the other woman. "Hey thanks!" she called. Tasia just lifted a hand and waved it without turning around. With a smile, Emily hugged the books close. She kind of liked her 'savior's' cocky attitude. Thinking she might like to meet her again sometime, she headed the other direction to take the books to where she lived with her brother before she herself went to the marketplace to get to work.