Transcendent, The Kacy Chronicles Book 4
By A.L. Knorr & Martha Carr
Transcendent, Chapter Two (unedited)
The largest of the main parks on Middle Rodania was heaving with Strix. More arrived by the minute to attend the ceremony scheduled by the palace to honor the lost combatants of the harpy battle. Young and old, Arpak and Nycht, soldiers, servants, couriers, bankers, lawyers, doctors––whoever wished to attend was invited. It seemed to Jordan, jostled as she was and pressed in on all sides by flesh and feathers, that nearly every citizen of Rodania save for those on watch had turned out to pay their respects.
A low stage had been erected on the west side, facing the evening sunset. Shadows were already long and the air was cool. The sounds of a sober crowd filled the air; the sniffs of those on the edge of an emotional cliff, the low voices of conversation, the rustle of wings and the sounds of leather creaking. Black was the predominant color, Jordan noted, just the way it might be on earth for such a ceremony. Gathered on the stage and talking in small groups were Council members and important staff from the palace. Jordan craned her neck to look for King Konig but the weakened monarch and his strange glowing eyes were conspicuously absent.
Jordan’s fingers clutched at the small round whistle kept perpetually around her neck. There had thankfully been no reason to blow it in the last several weeks, but the memories of the battle still raged fresh in her mind. There would be no chances taken.
Sol spotted the silver hair of Toth glinting in the evening light and pointed him out to Jordan. They made their way through the crowd of their fellow warriors toward him.
“I’m surprised you’re not up on stage,” Jordan said to Toth as she and Sol fell into place beside him.
Toth looked down at Jordan with his usual inscrutable expression. “As am I,” he replied, his voice a soft rumble.
“You’re our military leader,” Sol huffed. “Did they not ask you to say a few words?”
“Balroc did, and I agreed.” Toth hesitated before going on, his eyes reflecting a kind of sceptical mystification. “It seems there was some change of plan at the last moment.” He tilted his chin down and his ice-grey eyes hardened. “At the Prince’s say so.”
Jordan’s brows arched. She lowered her voice. “What has the Prince got against you?”
Toth’s gaze wandered back to the stage as those in charge of the whole affair signalled a beginning to the proceedings. “I suspect my species has something to do with it, but…” his shoulder lifted a little.
“Not all?” Sol prodded.
“No, not all.”
“Is he up there?” Jordan stood on tiptoe to get a better look at the Strix on the stage. It was difficult enough to see over heads when in a crowd of humans, it was twice as difficult when high arches of wings and dewclaws jutted skyward, blocking the view. “What does he look like?”
“The one whose feathers are dusted with gold powder every morning,” Toth murmured, his voice laced with derision. “Hush now.”
Jordan didn’t have to crank her neck out of joint to find the prince. A set of golden wings, reflecting fine glitter in the evening light, spread wide and beat at the air, lifting their owner above the stage. A long-bodied, exquisitely dressed Arpak with a strong face and blond hair rose until he hovered high enough for all to see, like some self-proclaimed messiah.
Jordan’s breath hitched and her fingers went to her lips in surprise. She knew this Arpak. She had seen him before. Her eyes tightened as she struggled to place him.
Beside her, Toth was having his own reaction to the visual of the Rodanian prince. His body had gone taut, and little lightning bolts of anger spiked through his belly at the memory of their heated conflict at Balroc’s apartment.
When the prince began to speak, Jordan jumped. Diruk’s voice had been magically enhanced so it could be heard by all. The voice was not merely amplified, for it was not loud, but it had been transported somehow. It sounded exactly as though the prince himself was standing on either side of her, his words penetrating both eardrums clearly and equally.
“Rodanian citizens, distinguished Members of Council, guests and servants,” Prince Diruk began, his voice calm, deep, resonant. His wings beat almost soundlessly as he hovered seemingly without effort. His booted feet poised in a way which reminded Jordan of Superman, one leg slightly drawn up. It struck her as extremely contrived. Prince Diruk wore no cape, but the huge wingspan of his brilliant wings more than made up for its lack.
“I speak on behalf of my father the King, who sends his regrets that he cannot be with us as we gather to honor our fallen warriors. Not since the great war of Oriceran against Rahzdon over eight-hundred years ago has Rodania endured such insult, such a cowardly, brutal attack. While our violation manifested on the stinking wings and venomous talons of the harpies of Golpa, do not make the mistake of thinking that it is the harpies with which our quarrel lies.” These words hung in the air, echoing over Rodania like a righteous peal of thunder. “Our distinguished scientists have confirmed an organized attack of this scale was not simply a predatory move against us by a species seeking food and resources, but a calculated design! A nefarious scheme by an insidious faceless enemy. This premeditated invasion will not go unpunished, or unexposed.”
The crowd was sharing furtive glances; they were shifting, coughing, looking down at their feet and back up to the sky with bewilderment. They had been called together to honor the fallen warriors, but the prince was turning the event into a revenge speech.
Prince Diruk’s voice grew harder, louder, and was clearly laced with anger. “Rest assured, this enemy will not go faceless for long.” Diruk scanned the crowd from side to side, sliding forward in the air, his palms spreading wide, the fingers stiff and curling like claws.
Jordan stole a glance at Toth. The Nycht Captain was standing with his arms crossed over his chest. The muscles of his jaw flexed, his eyes were laser-focused on the prince. Anger rolled off him in waves at a magnitude Jordan had not felt before. She wondered what exactly he was angry at; being cut out of the ceremony, that Diruk had changed the focus of the gathering, or some other reason yet to reveal itself. She glanced at Sol on her other side and he looked down at her, his brow wrinkled with concern.
As she faced the hovering prince again, it struck her hard in the gut. She did remember him. He was the Arpak who had left her mother’s office the day she had tracked Jaclyn down to the island off the coast of Maticaw. Jordan’s jaw sagged and her eyes strained for a better view of the prince’s features. She was certain it had been him. The golden wings were enough proof; he was the only Arpak she’d ever seen with feathers that glittered. She glanced at Toth and almost said something, then bit her tongue as Diruk continued to speak into her ears, rattling the cage of her mind and fracturing her train of thought. What did the prince of Rodania have to do with Jaclyn Kacy?
“I now pass the torch to Councilman Darber Nighn as we remember both our fallen heroes as well as those living heroes who deserve special recognition for their acts of bravery during our hours of need.” Prince Diruk descended to the stage as another Arpak rose to take his place from the line of Council members across the back of the stage.
A wizened and wrinkled man with a hunchback and a monocle rose with labored strokes on brown wings laced with gray. Not strong enough to hover gracefully the way Diruk had, Darber’s short wings flapped laboriously as his body jounced and his voice hitched with the jarring of his torso. In his hand was a scroll, open and fluttering in the breeze. His monocle fell from his face and he fumbled to put it back into place, nearly dropping the scroll.
Jordan pinched her lips together and dropped her gaze to the ground, concerned for a moment that she might laugh inappropriately and embarrass herself. The overall effect was too comical for the seriousness of the occasion.
“I begin with our deceased comrades,” Darber’s throaty voice said into Jordan’s ears. And with that, began to list the names, slowly and solemnly.
Jordan’s unreleased humor vaporized as she listened to the names of Arpaks she had fought beside, and one she had seen die at the hands of the large female harpy in the streets of Crypsis. With every name spoken, Jordan’s memory delivered a face, a silhouette, or the sound of a voice. She knew every one. Her nose tingled and moisture began to gather along her lower lids. It was interesting to note, however, that every name uttered thus far belonged to an Arpak.
She took a side glance at Toth, who had gone still beside her, head down and eyes on the grass. Feeling her gaze, he looked down at his Arpak friend. Their eyes met and they listened together as Arpak names continued to be listed. They waited for the first Nycht to be mentioned. Jordan felt her cheeks grow hot as time ticked by. This was another way of keep the Strix segregated and ensuring the Nychts knew their place. Only when the final fallen Arpak was listed, did Darber mention a Nycht name. When it came, Jordan was run-through with the pain of it, though she’d been bracing herself.
Toth’s eyelids drifted closed. When they eyes opened again, Jordan thought they looked as desolate as a winter wasteland. He looked away but didn’t lift his gaze to the Arpak who’d spoken his brother’s name. He looked out over Rodania, the country his brother had died for.
When the last of the Nychts were listed, Darber moved on to awarding those considered by King and Council to have gone above and beyond.
“Hivlin Girin,” said Darber.
An Arpak warrior Jordan knew to be excellent in battle and in fact had been part of her squadron, took to the sky from the crowd of warriors. He landed on the stage and bowed to Prince Diruk, who then fastened a medal to his clothing.
Thus the proceedings continued.
Names were called.
Medals were given.
Jordan shivered as the sun slipped behind the clouds, but it wasn’t from the cold. The insult to the Nychts had become an ugly beast slavering amid the crowd and growing larger with every name called.
“Jordan Kacy,” said Darber.
Jordan blinked with surprise. Her feet suddenly felt glued to the soil. When she didn’t take to the air, a hush fell over the crowd. Necks craned to look for the woman whom they thought commanded the dragons.
Toth’s head swivelled to her. “Jordan.” His voice was quiet, and while it was heavy with choler, there was no blame in it. “Go.”
Conflicted, Jordan moved to where a gap in the crowd allowed her to spread her wings. Warriors around her moved aside, many of them nodding deferentially. Jordan had felt an elevation of her status since the harpy battle that made her uncomfortable. Word had spread like wildfire––the blue dragon had imprinted on her (one of their own Arpak warriors) and the red dragon was attached to the blue one. Rumor had it that the blonde Arpak warrior had been able to summon the dragons to rescue the country. Jordan spread her wings and flew to the stage, feeling every eye on her as she landed in front of the prince. Her wings folded and she moved forward and bowed her head, the way the Arpaks before her had done.
“Thank you for your service to king and country,” said Prince Diruk as he fastened the medal to her vest, just above her heart. “The woman with the dragons,” he added, his lip curling with what could have been mirth, could have been disdain. “Rodania owes you a great deal. I shall see to it that you are rewarded far beyond this medal.” Something about the way he’d said rewarded made Jordan pause. She lifted her head and looked the Prince in the eye as he closed the pin. His fingers moved deftly, his blue eyes tracked to hers and held her gaze. She couldn’t tell if his words were laced with sarcasm or if they were genuine. Either way, a spider of revulsion crawled up her spine.
Jordan could not find her voice or the emotion to utter any words of gratitude. She felt her body grow damp with sweat and wondered if he recognized her from that day outside of Jaclyn’s office. She didn’t think so. His eyes did not acknowledge in any way that he’d seen her before.
“I could never have survived such a battle were it not for the coaching and leadership of Toth and Caje Sazak.” The words were out before Jordan could reel them in. And why should she keep them locked behind her teeth? The fact that Toth, their strategist and military leader, had been robbed of his chance to acknowledge his own fallen combatants raised an angry rash inside of Jordan. The insult of it was clearly intentional.
Prince Diruk did not look away and there was no shame in his expression. “Little Arpak woman,” he said quietly, letting go of the medal on her vest and laying a heavy hand on her shoulder, “choose your friends wisely. I speak out of care for you, perhaps our most important hero.” The Prince’s hand squeezed her shoulder hard, just shy of painfully so. He stepped back and dismissed her by turning to the Arpak next to him and plucking another medal from the box as the next name was called.
Jordan’s heart pounded hard in her chest as she returned to her place beside Toth and Sol. Sol gave her a questioning look and Jordan mouthed that she’d tell him what the prince had said to her later. She looked down at the medal on her vest and unpinned it, holding it in her palm so she could see it better. The medal depicted two disembodied feathered wings, opening outward away from one another and set inside a ring. The entire thing was rendered in gold. This was the Rodanian crest, their symbol to the rest of the world of Oriceran––a symbol that did not acknowledge the Nychts on whose backs much of Rodania had been built. Jordan half considered passing the wings to Toth, but the medal was as much an insult as it was a tribute. She dropped the pin into a small pocket in her vest.
The calling of Arpak names continued. Sometimes the Arpak would fly from the crowd to receive their medal, and other times, the names were answered only by silence.
Jordan expected the Nychts to receive their medals last, the same way the deceased had had their names called last. But the ceremony came to a close and not a single Nycht had been awarded a set of golden wings. As the palace staff at the front began to clean up and it became clear that Prince Diruk was finished handing out medals, the realization settled over the dismayed warriors like a heavy wet blanket.
Jordan, Sol and Toth stood there, mute and enraged. The warriors around them shared looks of hateful indignation. Some of them sent Toth questioning looks and some of those looks had an accusatory flavor. Jordan felt like she could read their minds. Why hadn’t their brave leader stood up and said something against the injustice of it? He was their Captain, shouldn’t he do something?
Jordan’s mouth twisted with the regret of having accepted the medal. If she had known how the proceedings were going to transpire she wouldn’t have flown to the stage in the first place. Juer had said that King Konig was sympathetic to the Nychts cause, so surely this offense had been manufactured by Prince Diruk.
Prince Diruk and the Council members in attendance milled about on stage, murmuring amongst themselves as they watched the crowd disband. Jordan glared at the prince from her place on the green, watching as his cold eyes scanned the crowd. They passed over Toth before bouncing back and freezing on the Nycht Captain. Jordan felt Sol take her hand as he too noticed the quiet confrontation taking place. It seemed as though someone had sucked all the oxygen out of the air as Diruk and Toth stared one another down.
Prince Diruk spread his wings with a snap, drawing attention to himself. He flew over the heads of the crowd and landed on a fast walk, closing up those golden feathers as he strode to where Toth, Jordan and Sol stood. Jordan had to work to prevent her hands from flying to the hilts of her weapons, so aggressive were the Prince’s movements.
Prince Diruk’s eyes were still locked on Toth and they were hard with a cold fury. His face seemed to be cut from some frozen metal.
Toth did not move a muscle or look away when the prince stopped in front of him.
For a moment, Jordan thought the prince was going to hit Toth. Sol squeezed her hand tighter and she suspected it was an unconscious and protective movement. Sol and Toth had had their differences, but the two of them had developed a mutual respect. Jordan could feel the anger baking off Sol on behalf of his Captain. She squeezed his hand back with empathy.
“I know,” seethed Diruk, rocking forward onto his toes and shoving his nose into Toth’s face. Diruk’s voice became a throaty whisper. “I know what you did.” His cold eyes then swung to Jordan, then to Sol.
Jordan was grateful for the steadying solid grip of Sol’s fingers around hers. It kept her from shoving the prince back and out of their faces, or worse, slapping him across the mouth.
“Soon I’ll be able to prove it. Your scheme,” his jaw popped and he pierced Toth with his gaze again, “it will not work.” With another snap of his wings, the Prince lit to the air and made for Upper Rodania without looking back.
Toth only moved when the Prince was a small figure against the distant backdrop of Upper Rodania. He uncrossed his arms. His expression was impenetrable and his face was pale and shining with moisture. He brought the fingertips of his right hand to his brow, as though there was a headache forming there.
“What just happened?” Sol’s voice broke like it had been under considerable strain. “What scheme?” When Toth didn’t answer, Sol put a hand on his arm. “Toth?”
The fingers resting on Toth’s forehead flexed open in a gesture which asked Sol not to pry. The Nycht turned away and took to the sky, leaving Jordan and Sol to watch him go in miserable confusion.