(I’ll be posting a chapter a day of Across A Star-Swept Sea leading up to its release on Tuesday. Read along and then enter the giveaway at the bottom of the post.)
As the sun peeked its head over the lip of the sea, lighting the shore with a rosy golden glow, the Ford children stopped writhing and fell into an odd, restless sleep. Sharie hoped this was normal. Her contact hadn’t told her exactly what to expect from the pinks—just that the children would be easier to transport to revolutionary officials if they were already Reduced.
She didn’t like the look of them, lying there on pallets with the remnants of pink foam drying around their mouths. She didn’t like the fact that her contact was supposed to have been here well before sunrise. If the Fords noticed the children were missing—if they found her with them like this . . .
Finally, she couldn’t stand the sight of their pathetic little figures anymore, and she escaped to the beach. Soon enough, the shadow of a skimmer loomed long across the sand in front of her. She hadn’t expected it from the direction of the beach but instead from the road. It didn’t matter. The pickup was here at last. The driver was . . . not exactly the police escort she’d expected. Then again, maybe the revolution preferred to do such dirty work through unofficial channels. The woman was a crone, hunched and craggy, with ropes of gray hair and deep-set eyes surrounded by masses of wrinkled, peeling skin. She was swathed in a heavy, hooded robe, and as she moved to lower the skimmer’s brakes to the sand, Sharie could see that her hands were encased in long linen gloves.
“You’re late,” said Sharie, wondering if the old woman would even be able to help her move the bodies.
The woman rolled her ancient shoulders. “Money doesn’t have an expiration date. But the revolutionary army’s offer does.”
Sharie quickly ushered the lady into the house before she could change her mind. There, on a pallet, lay three children, still unconscious but sleeping fitfully. Pink stains crackled along their cheeks and throats and lay in spongy mats in their hair.
“You gave them pinks,” the woman stated flatly.
“Yes,” said Sharie. “As instructed.”
But the woman made no response other than, “Where’s the fourth?”
“Couldn’t get to her. She’s the heir, so she gets her own wing.” Sharie rolled her eyes. “You know aristos. Even under siege, they have to keep up appearances.”
The old woman snorted, a phlegmy, disgusting sound, and reached for the leather purse hanging at her side. “So, the agreement was a hundred each, right?”
“Three hundred,” Sharie corrected. She hadn’t braved smuggling the children out of the Ford estate’s blockade for pocket change! “Three hundred each.”
The crone paused, thinking. “Well, without the heir, I won’t get full price for the lot. The plan’s to trade these children for Lady Ford and her husband. It’s them Citizen Aldred wants—they’re leading the royalist resistance. But without the heir, Lady Ford might just decide her other children are spares, necessary sacrifices, just like all those guards who’ve been dying to keep the blockade strong against the revolutionary forces.”
“They won’t,” Sharie insisted. She could see the deal crumbling before her eyes. “They might be aristos, but the Fords love all their children. Believe me, I was their nanny for five years.”
“Five years,” said the crone. “You took care of these brats, and now you’re Reducing them?” She whistled through her teeth. “What are you gonna do with the money? Buy a nice new life in Halahou where you never have to take care of some aristo’s spoiled spawn again?”
Of course. Sharie had no experience other than child care, and with the aristos dropping like flies, there was no one left to hire her anymore. Might as well get as much as she could while the getting was still good. The Ford children were doomed anyway. The blockade would fall, and when it did, the whole family would be Reduced—them and anyone caught helping them. Sharie could see the writing on the wall, and she had no intentions of being there when it crumbled.
The crone was making some mental calculations as she looked at the sleeping children. “A hundred and fifty each. That’s my final offer, and you’d better take it. Time’s running short.”
The woman handed over the money in the leather purse. The coins clinked against one another, surprisingly heavy. Sharie had never held so much money in all her life—or much metal money at all. The Fords had paid in royal credits, all nice and aboveboard. But with everything still in flux with the government, it was best to carry cash. Especially if you weren’t exactly working aboveboard.
She slung the purse around her shoulder then, one by one, helped the old woman carry the children into the back of the skimmer’s cab. As she settled the youngest, Mardette, the girl’s eyes fluttered open.
“Guuuuuh,” she mumbled.
Sharie swallowed. Mardette had a beautiful singing voice. She wondered if Reduced even knew how to carry a tune.
They’d be captured anyway. They’d be Reduced anyway. There was nothing Sharie could do to stop it. If she tried to help them, she’d wind up punished, just like all the other regs on the Ford estate. Sharie squeezed the purse hard, reassured by the weight of the money inside. And in addition to her wealth, she’d helped the revolution. They owed her now.
“By the way,” said the crone, as she climbed back behind the driver’s seat of the skimmer, “what’s your plan if Ford’s people come looking for you?”
Sharie shook her head. “If they could get past the revolutionaries, don’t you think they would?” She needn’t worry about the Fords, anyway. The revolution would protect her. Sharie had picked the winning side.
“Hmm,” said the crone, and took off.
As soon as she was gone, Sharie ran back into the house. The pallets on the floor still held the pink-stained imprints of the bodies of the Ford children, and Sharie averted her eyes. At least she had the money. She thrust her hand into the purse, reveling in the cool feel of the coins. This money would be more than enough to start her life in Halahou. She opened the purse, the better to see her reward. There they were, forty-five silver pieces. Money for nothing, except saving herself from the wrath of the revolutionaries. Light from the rising sun filtered in through the cottage windows and glittered on the surface of the coins.
Which began to change.
Before Sharie’s eyes, the engraving on each coin began to melt and swirl on the surface. Sharie blinked hard, but the optical illusion continued. She grabbed one of the coins and brought it close to her eyes. The face of old Queen Gala blurred, the lines becoming sharp and jagged, until they re-formed themselves into the shape of some sort of sharp-leaved flower.
She shook her head in shock and dismay. Nanotech wasn’t used on coins. Had she been tricked, given counterfeit money by that old crone? She flipped over the coin to see what it showed on the back.
My eternal thanks, the Wild Poppy
The coin thudded to the counter. Sharie staggered backward. No.
There was a pounding on the door outside. “Sharie Bane? We’ve come for the children.”
Sharie clutched her hands to her chest, feeling the trap close tight. How could she have been so foolish? With trembling fingers, she opened the door. On the threshold stood two revolutionary guards and a third figure—a young woman in a pair of smart black pants and a matching military jacket with an insignia that marked her as a captain. Sharie’s gaze dropped to the name embroidered on the woman’s coat.
Vania Aldred, the young captain in charge of the Ford siege. Citizen Aldred’s own daughter. Sharie’s throat went dry.
“You are Sharie Bane?” the captain asked, cocking her eyebrow until it disappeared under her dark bangs. Her black hair was unfashionably long, and straighter than water flowing from a tap.
Sharie considered feigning ignorance. “I—”
The woman brushed past her, scanned the room. “Where are the Ford children? Have you failed to deliver on your promise to the revolution?”
“No . . . I . . .” Sharie’s gaze shot to the coins on the counter. The young woman—hardly more than a child herself—looked that way, too. She picked up one the coins, then hissed and let it thud back to the counter.
“You idiot. What did he look like?”
“An—an old woman.” Sharie swallowed, stepping back. “Please, how could I have known? I didn’t . . .”
The captain gave a little jerk of her head. “No, you didn’t do anything you should have.” She turned and marched toward the guards at the door, whispering a few orders. The guards started forward.
“Please . . .” Sharie whispered.
“Useless idiots like you,” Captain Aldred said, “don’t deserve your brains.”
Justen Helo strolled down the dock, hands in his pockets as if to protect the oblets he’d hidden there. He doubted anyone could actually see the pebble-sized computers, but he still felt better with his fists around them. So far, his escape had been uneventful. The staff at the records hall had barely noted his visit, and guards near the palace gate had merely inclined their heads in his direction as he passed. Now he was one narrow strait from safety.
Was he really going through with this?
Did he have a choice? As soon as the officials at the Lacan estate began to notice what he’d done, arrest would be right around the corner. He’d no longer be able to put his uncle off, no longer be able to prevent his research from becoming a mockery of everything he’d spent his life working toward.
Up ahead, a beautiful yacht tugged impatiently at its mooring ropes. It was Albian by the look of the rigging. Better and better. Travel between the nations had slowed since the revolution, but Justen had hoped there’d be someone at the port of Halahou who might give him passage. He strolled by the ship twice, hoping to catch a glimpse of the skipper, but saw no one on deck. On his third pass up the quay, one of the guards looked at him for a little too long, his eyes lighting with what might be recognition.
This had been a mistake—the latest of many. He should have known his uncle would guess his plans. There was a reason Damos Aldred had been the first to challenge Galatea’s ruler in the centuries since the island had been created.
“You there,” said a guard, and Justen tensed. But the man, clad in his revolutionary uniform, was not pointing in his direction but rather at someone behind him. Justen turned to see a figure staggering down the dock. Tall and elderly, the woman was an aristo by the look of her outfit, a cascade of silken ruffles in rust and midnight blue from her collarbone to her ankles. Her hair was arrayed in an elaborate tangle of curls and braids the color of storm clouds. Justen was surprised. He’d doubted there was an aristo on all Albion with natural-colored hair. And this aristo was most certainly Albian. A Galatean noble who’d somehow avoided the revolution this long would not come out dressed in such finery. That was just asking for trouble.
“You there,” the guard repeated. “Identify yourself.”
The aristo, whoever she was, paid no heed. She was focused on the yacht, as if she could maneuver herself aboard by sheer force of will.
An intoxicated Albian aristo entertaining herself with cheap thrills in the slums of the dock district. Contempt flashed through Justen and with it, regret. For all its claims, the revolution hadn’t done much to help the poorest regs. What was the point of punishing aristos for their behavior if the victims weren’t protected?
“Stop at once,” the guard cried.
The woman did stop now, and Justen noticed for the first time how iridescent the ruffles of her gown were as they shimmied and shivered in the sunlight. A split second later, he realized why. The aristo was shaking—shuddering so hard it was a wonder her teeth didn’t shatter in her mouth.
Genetemps sickness. That’s what it looked like, at least, and the most likely culprit if she’d been partying in the slums. With the instinct born of years of medic training, Justen reached out to her, and she collapsed against him. He clutched her head as she twitched and trembled in his arms. Greasy gray paste smeared onto his fingers from her braids. She slumped in his arms as boots pounded the planks behind them.
There was about to be trouble here. Trouble and attention, neither of which he could afford.
As the first of the guards reached them, the woman was yanked out of his hands. “Who do you think you are?” the guard shouted as she dangled like a limp eel in his meaty grip. “Aristo scum, you answer to us.”
Justen began to back up. Thankfully, they didn’t seem half as interested in him. On the yacht, he saw a flash of turquoise as an occupant peered over the rails at the commotion. The woman in the guard’s grip looked up at the boat and shook her head once. But even that effort seemed to be too much for her, and her eyes rolled back in her head.
Another guard snorted. “This one looks like she just got her first pink. If we wait ’til it takes effect, we can have some real fun.”
At this, Justen stiffened, and a chill shuddered through his veins. Her first pink. So this was what it had come to on the streets of Galatea? Making jokes about the Reduction drug? He really had been sheltered. And if he didn’t get off this island, it would get much worse. For everyone.
Caution fled, and he opened his mouth, speaking in a voice more accustomed to addressing lab techs than dock security. “Gentlemen, can’t you see? This woman is an Albian, even if she’s an aristo, too.”
“And who do you think you are?” the first guard asked, looking down his nose at Justen.
Justen straightened, though it still didn’t make him as tall as the soldier. “An interested bystander, sir, and a friend of the revolution. You know Citizen Aldred has granted immunity to visiting Albians. We certainly wouldn’t want to anger their princess over this silly aristo, and neither would those in the palace. Am I right?”
“That’s your opinion, young man.”
“Correct, it is.” He was ready to unleash his secret weapon, when the aristo proceeded to vomit all over the pavement.
The guard grimaced. “Let Albion have her, then.” He let go and the woman collapsed on the dock, senseless. When the guard kicked her, she barely even grunted.
Justen’s mouth opened, but he said nothing. As long as they left, and left her alone, a kick would not hurt her worse than the genetemps sickness already had. He reached down and pulled her up again. The shaking had only worsened.
“My boat,” she croaked.
“Yes,” Justen replied curtly. Messing around with temporary genetics was foolish at best and deadly at worst. Since the revolution, the market for unlicensed genetemping had flourished in the Halahou’s sketchier neighborhoods, offering everything from glow-in-the-dark skin and feathers to snake eyes and sex changes. It was all the rage among the teen regs—even Remy had expressed interest in giving it a whirl, until Justen had explained exactly what could happen to her if things went wrong.
Genetemps were also wildly popular with bored Albian aristos looking for a little adventure on holidays down south. Justen didn’t bother to hate them. The hell that was genetemps sickness was punishment enough. This one, though, was old enough to know better. She looked like she was as old as the Helo Cure.
He dragged the old woman back to her ship, where the turquoise-haired Albian he’d spotted earlier met him at the ramp. She was a few years younger than Justen, with full, rosy cheeks and a keenly intelligent glint in her deep brown eyes. “Thank you, Citizen,” the girl said, grabbing the older woman out of his grasp. “I appreciate your assistance with my grandmother. She’s . . . quite frail . . .”
“She’s got genetemps sickness,” he snapped at the girl. “I’m not an idiot. The code’s breaking down badly and her cells are going into shock. Do you have a medical kit on board?”
Turquoise cast her grandmother a fretful look and said nothing.
“Listen,” Justen hissed. “She needs medical care or she’ll go coma. I’m a medic. I can treat her here, or we can take her to the hospital in Halahou. Your choice.”
Turquoise went for the kit. Justen arranged the old woman’s body on a cushioned bench. He brushed her hair out of her face, and gray grease smeared off on his skin. The color was fake, he realized, noting how the gray crackled on her braids.
The woman’s eyes fluttered open. He’d expected the watery, sunken look of age, but they were a clear, golden brown. And her wrinkles appeared fewer and far shallower than they had on the docks.
“An aging genetemps?” he asked, as if he were back in the clinic surrounded by other medics. “There’s a new one.”
“It didn’t work right,” the woman said, the croak subsiding to leave the voice of a girl. “It was supposed to make me look thirty, not ninety.”
“Ah.” Justen nodded. This aristo was no one’s grandmother. She must have been trying to get into an establishment with age restrictions. Though it didn’t explain the gray hair. He’d never understand the motives behind what passed for Albian fashion. The crazy hair colors, the ridiculous ruffles . . .
The turquoise-haired girl reappeared with a medical kit. “You’re awake,” she said with a sigh of relief.
The aristo held out her hand to her companion. “Andrine, is everything ready?”
“Good,” croaked the other one. “Ready the Daydream for departure as soon as my Galatean savior is done here.”
Justen saw his opening. “Actually, as I was telling your friend, you’re in dire need of medical attention. I’d like to offer my services to you during the crossing. I’m trained as a medic.”
“That won’t be necessary.”
“I disagree.” He hesitated. “I am in search of passage to Albion anyway. If you won’t accept my care, I would be happy to pay you for the trip. But either way, as a medic I’m ethically required to offer my assistance.”
The woman regarded him for a long moment. He wondered how old she was really. If she’d taken aging genetemps, she might be even younger than he was. “How nice it is to see that all Galateans have not abandoned their morals. Fine, you can come with us. You must tell us, though, to whom I am in debt.”
He glanced behind him, to the docks. None of the guards lingered. Besides, as long as he was leaving, it didn’t matter. “My name is Justen Helo.”
Andrine stepped back. The aristo’s eyes widened. It figured. Even Albian party girls knew what that name meant.
“Citizen Helo,” she said softly, “it is an honor.”
“Justen,” he ground out. If he never heard the title “Citizen” again, it would be too soon. And who was this aristo kidding? An honor? There was vomit drying on her collar.
She inclined her head. “Lady Persis Blake, at your service.”
a Rafflecopter giveaway