Across A Star Swept Sea, Chapter Four

In one more day, my ninth book, Across A Star-Swept Sea, will be out in the world! To celebrate, I’ve been posting chapters:

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Warm silk cradled her cheek, and sunlight dappled coral along the insides of her eyelids. Slowly, Persis emerged from sleep. Her limbs felt like washed-up seaweed, and her body ached as if she’d swum for miles. The soft sway of the hammock was her only comfort. She tried to open her eyes, and a dagger of pain sliced through her temples.

Memory flooded into the wound. The mission. The genetemps. The young Galatean on the docks. The one who’d said his name was—

Heedless of the pain, Persis forced her eyes open. Justen Helo. She’d been too out of it on the boat to question the Galatean’s claim. She’d been too out of it, even, to figure out a way to avoid giving him passage after he’d helped her.

Andrine should have known better than to let some stranger on the boat, even if his name was Helo. Persis must have been very sick, indeed, for her friend to have taken the risk. At least Andrine had brought her back home to Scintillans. But what had become of Justen Helo?

There was a soft chirp and the sound of claws against the polished bamboo floorboards. A tug on the silk of the hammock near her legs and then she felt the familiar weight and warmth of Slipstream wriggling up her body and curling into her arms. His whiskers tickled against her skin as he snuffled his otter-like face into the crook of her elbow. He blinked at her, his enormous, round eyes filled with concern.

“It’s all right, Slippy. I’m home,” she whispered.

“And awake,” said a voice beyond the folds of her hammock. Persis clutched Slipstream tightly. “That was sooner than I expected. You must have a great constitution.”

With effort, Persis sat up. The sea mink snuggled against her, his velvet fur sun-warmed and dry, which meant he hadn’t gone fishing yet this morning. Justen Helo stood by the steps leading to the garden, little more than a dark blotch against the sunlight. Her privacy screen hadn’t been drawn, which left the panoramic views of the Scintillans cliffs beyond the edge of the garden open wide before her. Though she’d woken to the sight nearly every morning of her life, Persis now blanched. She didn’t need a Galatean revolutionary—she didn’t need Justen Helo—to see how opulent her bedroom was.

“How long was I out?” she asked, hating the way her voice crackled over the words. Persis tried to recall anything specific about him, but the only thing that came to mind was a vague memory of a story from childhood about his parents dying in some sort of reg riot, leaving Justen and his sister orphans.

He’d clearly grown up since then.

“All day and night,” he said, his tone still formal, medical.

Which meant that he’d already been here in Scintillans for a day? How did she hope to explain that to her parents? Her father had forbidden visitors, lest anyone see her mother during one of her spells. Even Andrine knew not to come up anymore, thought she didn’t know the reason. What had her friend been thinking, to dump Justen here?

Probably that no one in New Pacifica would deny a Helo hospitality.

“Are you in pain?” he asked, his tone somehow containing both concern and command. Maybe Andrine hadn’t had a choice about leaving him here. Justen had insisted on caring for her on the boat. Maybe the medic—a Helo medic! The mind boggled—felt his duties were ongoing.

“Not as much as I probably should be,” she replied. “I’d been led to believe that genetemps sickness was more severe.” Tero had given her an earful about it before he’d handed over the drugs he’d concocted.

He should have spent a bit less time lecturing and a bit more coding.

“It usually is,” Justen said, drawing nearer. He was slim of build, this Galatean, with natural dark hair cut close to his head in proper revolutionary fashion. High, sharp cheekbones like spear points gave his face a severe, serious air—or maybe that was the glare he was shooting her from beneath his pointed black eyebrows. He’d be handsome—if he ever cracked a smile. His eyes were very dark and very keen, and he wore an expression that reminded Persis more than a little of the images she’d seen of his famous grandmother. He placed the back of his hand against her forehead. It was cool and dry. No wristlock. No palmport. His nails were short and neat but unpolished. “But I’m pretty good at what I do. I caught you early.”

Persis swallowed with a dry mouth. Caught?

“Next time you go to Galatea to party, Lady Blake, I suggest you stick to safer intoxicants than genetemps. And not just because of the risk of sickness. If the genetemps isn’t properly formatted for breakdown, you might get stuck with the code for life.”

She nodded, then gingerly maneuvered her legs over the side of the hammock. To party. She was safe, then. And grateful she’d had the wherewithal, even in the grips of genetemps sickness, to craft a believable excuse for her condition. If Justen thought she’d accidentally overaged herself, he’d be unlikely to connect her to the crone who’d just liberated his nation of an entire family of besieged children.

Though he was also certain to find her beneath his contempt.

Tero Finch was a dead man. She couldn’t wait to get her hands on the young gengineer, provided, of course, that there was anything left once his sister, Andrine, had her shot. She was surprised she couldn’t feel the tremors from whatever eruption must be going on at the Finch house down in the village. Bad coding? She had half a mind to send a strongly worded flutter to his old gengineering instructors. And she was done letting him fiddle with Slipstream’s code whenever he wanted. Her pet was a sea mink, not a guinea pig.

As she put weight on her aching legs, Justen turned his head to the side in an expression Persis recognized from her mother’s nurses. It was the gesture of a medic seeking to allow his patient some privacy. Justen Helo, the medic. A Helo. Standing in her bedroom.

Persis tugged at the thin fall of seafoam silk until it covered her upper thighs and stood. Slipstream slid from her lap and landed, light as a cat, on the floor. Her hair had been washed clean of the paint she’d used in her old-woman disguise, but she had yet to see if the genetemps had left any permanent damage to her face.

Wouldn’t that be a fun bit of news for the Albian court! The Lady Persis Blake, disfigured on an ill-advised pleasure trip to Galatea. She really would kill Tero if that was the case.

And more than seeing her reflection, Persis needed to find out what had happened to the Wild Poppy’s cargo. As soon as she reached her bathroom she engaged the privacy screen, closed her eyes against the pain still thrumming across her skull, and summoned her focus for a flutter.

The next thing she knew she was sprawled out on the smooth onyx floor, her cells screaming for mercy.

Above her, Justen’s voice sounded foggy, distant: “—idiot aristo.” She felt a pinprick against her arm, and the pain subsided. Persis blinked until her vision cleared.

“Hey,” he said. “Listen.” He waved her own left hand before her eyes. It was floppy, loose on her wrist, the bright golden disk of the palmport blurring against her skin. “You cannot use this thing until you fully recover. You hear me?”

Persis cringed. She’d ignored Isla’s warning, but the princess had been right. Genetemps was a bad idea. Forget what the drug might have done to her face. It apparently made her stupid, too. She knew the energy requirements of a palmport, and had been well aware that she didn’t possess them at the moment. She pasted her best “Persis Flake” face on and giggled. “I have to use my hand, silly.”

He dropped her hand like it was a piece of rotting fish and stalked out of the bathroom, grumbling something under his breath that sounded to Persis like “useless.”

Good. Useless was the impression she needed to make. Clearly, she was off to a good start convincing Justen Helo.

Shoving herself to her feet once more, she reengaged the screen and pulled the lever on her bath. A rush of hot mineral water flowed into the high-backed basin, and Persis tugged off her shift and slipped into the slightly sulfur-scented water. She didn’t even bother with perfumes. The obsidian wall above the bath was polished to a high sheen, and she checked out her reflection. Bloodshot, baggy eyes, but that was probably the sickness, not any lingering effects of the genetemps itself.

“By the way,” came Justen’s voice from the other side, “your friend gave me a message for you. The one with the blue hair?” His tone dripped with disdain. “She said she took your packages straight to your tailor.”

More good news. Persis slumped in her bath, allowing a small smirk at the thought of the league’s medic, Noemi, being called a tailor. Noemi would hate that. But she would know what to do for the children. Persis leaned her head back as the heat soaked into her aching muscles. “Thank you.”

Thank you, Justen Helo. Persis covered her face with her hands and groaned. Her whole life, she’d imagined what it would be like to meet a member of that famous family, perhaps when she went with Isla to one of Queen Gala’s parties. But it had never happened. Instead, this was what happened: Justen Helo had saved her life, and she’d thrown up on his shoes. So much for the elegant, charming Lady Persis Blake.

There was silence for several minutes on the other side of the screen, long enough for Persis to contemplate falling asleep again. But Justen couldn’t leave well enough alone. “Lady Blake? Do you plan to be very long in there?”

“Am I keeping you from an appointment, Citizen Helo?” She knew the Scintillans servants would have seen to all Justen’s needs, not only because he was Persis’s guest but because of his famous name. Regs would do anything for a descendant of the Helos. Justen was no doubt considered a model citizen back home.

And that’s why letting him wander around out there unattended might not be the best idea. With a groan, Persis pulled herself up to a sitting position in the warm, soothing water. She’d soak her bones later. For now, she needed to deal with the Galatean revolutionary standing in her bedroom.

She dialed in the instructions to her bath, which promptly responded with a flow of frangipani-scented water. Rinsed and perfumed, she emerged, dried off, and garbed herself in an ocean blue kimono that covered her from neck to foot. Properly armed, she exited the bathroom only to be greeted by an empty space. She looked around in confusion, and spotted Justen outside in the garden, near a table set with breakfast for two. He was kneeling on the vibrant, manicured lawn, while Slipstream balanced on his hind legs, his long neck stretched up as he begged for the bit of manguava cake Justen dangled over the sea mink’s glossy black nose.

“He’ll balance treats on his nose if you want,” she said from the steps, squinting as the full sunlight hit her face.

Justen tried it and sat back on his heels, impressed. “Very well-trained pet you have.”

“That’s what my father paid the gengineers for.” Persis turned her attention to the sea mink. “Slippy, end!” Slipstream flipped the cake off his snout and caught it in midair as Persis stepped off the stairs and onto the soft, loamy earth of the lawn. “Ever seen a sea mink before?”

“We don’t use gengineering for personal pets in Galatea,” Justen said, rising to his feet. “just for stock animals, guard beasts, stuff like that.”

Stuff like mini-orcas to feed your enemies to. But she wouldn’t dwell on that now. Not when Justen had been so kind as to save her life. Not when she had so much shallow socialite to convince him of.

“Slipstream is an excellent guard beast,” she replied as the animal scurried to her side. “I’ve never had my yacht stolen even once.” A servant had set out a breakfast she wasn’t quite prepared to tackle until the tsunami in her gut died down. Instead, she poured herself a cup of jasmine tea and sank into the cushioned chair. “So, Citizen Helo, have you been enjoying my estate?”

“Justen is fine, Lady Blake.”

She smiled at him over the cup. “So is Persis. After all, we’re good friends now that you’ve spent the night at my place.”

His gaze flickered away from her then, and Persis’s smile grew wider. She’d have answers from him yet. He might be handsome and famous and smart, but she was Persis Blake.

“So, what brings you to Albion . . . Justen?”

“Just a vacation.” He shrugged, but he still wasn’t quite meeting her eyes. “You visited my country for fun.”

“I can’t imagine your wanting to leave Galatea when things are going so well for you back home.” Persis crossed her legs, allowing the silk of her robe to part to her knees as Justen did his best to ignore the sight and busy himself with the teapot. The Galatean was hiding something.

Justen poured himself his own cup of tea, then took a long draft. After a moment, he looked at Persis again. “No, not really. No true patriot of my homeland would relish the violence happening now. I am a regular, I am a Helo, but I do not condone what is being done to Galatean aristos.”

His words hit hard. Persis swallowed and fought the urge to pull her robe closed. Maybe he wasn’t hiding so much as seriously disturbed by the horrors in Galatea. “I’m happy to hear that,” she managed.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable accepting the hospitality of any aristo without explaining my objections to my government’s tactics.”

Persis longed to ask him why, then, if he was a Helo, he didn’t use his influence to stop them? Why was he not fighting to help his countrymen, the way his grandmother had when she’d invented the cure? Persis was fighting. What was wrong with the rest of the world?

But that wasn’t the sort of thing Persis Blake asked anyone anymore. Not the Persis Blake who’d spent the better part of the year convincing everyone that she was empty-headed and ornamental and absolutely indispensable to the glittering court of Princess Isla. Those sorts of questions were reserved solely for the Wild Poppy these days, and the Wild Poppy was out of commission—at least until Persis recovered from Tero’s mistake.

“What is it you wish to do while you’re here?” she asked instead. “I must say, you’ve fallen into excellent hands—though you might not think so after yesterday. I’m rather popular at court. I’m sure I could get you an invite to a party there.” In truth, the entire court—aristo and reg—would salivate for a glimpse at a Helo. Bringing him would only cement her ranking at court.

But somehow, Persis had trouble imagining Justen would enjoy it.

“I’d like that, thank you,” he surprised her by saying. “Do you know the Princess Isla at all?”

What did he think “popular at court” meant? “I’m her chief lady-in-waiting.”

Justen looked nonplussed. “Like a maid?”

Persis smiled indulgently. “It’s how royals say ‘She’s one of my best friends.’”

Justen blinked. “Really? Oh . . . good. Because I’ve come to Albion to meet her.”

Was that disappointment he was not quite able to hide? Why would he be disappointed to have fallen in with such a well-connected aristo? And what did he want with Isla? Persis narrowed her eyes. This required further observation.

As did Justen Helo.


By the time the aristo had done her hair, her clothes, and her makeup, Justen had gone through the entire catalog of her gengineered rodent’s parlor tricks and wandered around the grounds of her sprawling estate twice. No one could deny the place was as beautiful as the girl who lived here. Perched on a high cliff at the southernmost edge of Albion’s western peninsula, the house seemed like a cliff flower itself, blossoming in shades of brown and black from the earth. Most of its rooms lay open to the sea air, covered only by vast, petal-shaped roofs that swept overhead, supported by thin, translucent columns of onyx or crystal. Justen could see slits in the external walls, hinting at screens that could be drawn to protect the interior during the rainy season.

The water surrounded them on three sides, vast and glittering beneath the sun-drenched sky. From up here, you could barely hear the surf, and the sharp, living smell of the water faded into a simple salty freshness. Justen paused at the western cliff edge and stared at the endless ocean. Once, long ago before the Reduction and the wars that had broken the very heart of the world, there’d been other lands, other people. People who lived and breathed democracies, people who’d accomplished their goals without spilling a single drop of blood. The Galateans had failed at this. Justen had failed.

All he’d ever wanted was to help people, like his grandmother had done. And now, when things had gone so wrong he had no choice but to escape, the only place left to go was Albion. The only mercy he could hope to get was from another monarch.

That was, if Persis Blake ever finished getting ready.

Everywhere he went, he felt the eyes of the estate servants on him. He grew tired of their obsequious attempts to bring him things—snacks, perfumes, changes of clothes in monstrously garish colors. Most of all, he hated the way every last one of them called him Citizen Helo. They probably meant it as a mark of respect, or even support of the Galatean revolution, but if anything, that made him feel worse.

“Citizen Helo, I just wanted to take a moment to thank you—to thank your family—for their gift to the world.”

“Citizen Helo, both my parents were born of the cure. Bless you and yours.”

“I hate to bother you, Citizen Helo, but I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t say it. It is such an honor to be in the presence of someone descended from Persistence Helo. Everyone here at Scintillans is overwhelmed. Is there anything I can get you?”

This last one planted a notion in his head, and he stopped the servant, a blue-haired butler. “Pardon me, but the lady of the house . . .”

“Lady Heloise Blake? She and Lord Blake are away at the moment.” The servant eyed him. “Oh, you mean Persis.”

But Justen already had the information he needed. He snapped his jaw shut. Heloise. Persis. He should have seen it before. Those names were no accident. And yet, why would aristos bear them?

“Citizen?” the servant prompted.

Justen shook his head. “I was just wondering how long she’d be.”

The older man laughed. “Yes, she does like her clothes, our girl. These days, it’s all she seems to care about.”

Our girl. Now, Justen examined the estate with new eyes. He’d been too concerned for his patient’s welfare when he’d arrived yesterday afternoon, and last night and this morning he’d been busy trying to make a plan for the future, but now he finally began to take in the details of this aristo estate. The little fishing village nestled at the base of the cliffs was filled with neat, tidy houses, not ramshackle cabins like one often saw on the plantations in Galatea. Happy, plump children ran about the lawns of the estate itself. The servants practically whistled while they worked. Were things so very different in Albion?

He knew that the Reduction’s end had been handled differently in the two nations of New Pacifica. In Albion, mandatory education for regs and fair wage laws had been passed. There’d been reg representatives on the Royal Council for more than a generation. But that couldn’t have made a true difference, could it? As Uncle Damos said, they still had a king calling the shots. One only had to look at the way they treated the women of Albion, the way aristos like Persis led such decadent, useless lives, to see how rotten the system must be.

But then again, those names . . . something was strange about Scintillans.

“Are you ready to go?” came a voice at his back. He turned to find Persis in a sari the color of sunset. Jewels sparkled along the hem and neckline. Her hair was piled on top of her head again, in a fashion he was sure was exceedingly intricate but looked to him like nothing more than an osprey nest. On top of it all perched a ridiculous fascinator shaped like a bird of paradise and made entirely from real feathers. Her skin was clear and golden, glowing with a vitality one would never have guessed possible for a girl so recently recovered from genetemps sickness. Her light-colored eyes were winged with kohl, and her wide cheekbones and full lips were the same sparkly rose color. Perhaps her complexion was being helped along by a good deal of Albian cosmetics, then.

The sea mink, its glossy red coat set off by a jeweled coral collar, frolicked at her feet.

The aristo frowned at him, as her gaze traveled down his body and over his simple black shirt and pants. “Oh, you didn’t change, I see.”

“Where did you get your name?” he blurted.

Her eyes snapped back to his face. “Where do you think?”

“From my grandmother.”

“Well,” she said, with a tilt of her head that sent the feathers shaking. “I see you have at least some of her smarts.”

“Your mother—”

“Is a reg, yes,” she said, her tone clipped. Was she . . . embarrassed by that fact? Justen couldn’t tell. He had never known a half aristo before. Not a legitimate one, anyway. Not one who was friends with royalty.

Persis tapped at her gloved left hand, then seemed to remember she was still recovering. “Well, let’s go. The royal court of Albion awaits.”

And now Justen realized he had no idea what to expect.


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