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Chapter One

Neith

Minutes have passed and I’m still glued to the spot where I last saw Invier. I can’t bring myself to walk past the crumbling buildings and shattered bodies on the estate. Not without him by my side. Of all the things that have happened in the last few hours, this has been the toughest but I had to let Invier go to keep him alive.

It’s not Father I’m worried about. Although he ordered the deaths of Loic, James and Mehrdad, he had justifiable reasons. He wanted revenge for the roles their father’s played in my mother’s death.

It would be illogical for Father to kill Invier. And now that I know he actually respects me, I’m confident I can sway him toward letting Invier and I be together.

There’s someone else who poses a threat to Invier—Adela. When she said she’d kill him if I couldn’t get him in line, I knew I had to do something. That wasn’t an idle threat. Having heard her discuss killing people with no remorse, I have no doubt she’d take Invier’s life if she thought he’d reveal her secrets.

Invier would never tell a soul what he learned this night. He loves me and wouldn’t hurt me or my nome that way. Still, as long as he’s not here, he won’t be a distraction and I’ll find a way to convince Father he can be trusted. Sure, sending him away was an extreme measure and Bel would agree if she was here instead of recovering from her injuries. She would tell me I took things too far and suggest a different way to handle the situation.

Even though she would be right, I had to make a split second decision and sending Invier away was my best option. There was no time to explain why or listen to him argue that I was only staying for the riches of my position. He needs to cool down for a few hours while I solve the Adela problem and make Father honor the terms of the Pursual—the Paladin becoming my mate. When I went to bed, there were only three remaining participants in the competition. Since then, one attacked my family’s estate and another killed scions in violation of the Pact and the competition’s rules. That eliminates them both, as far as I’m concerned.

Invier is the rightful Paladin and despite the hurtful things Father told him, I only need a little time to change Father’s mind. And if he disagrees, I’ll think of something drastic enough to bend him to my will. After all, he seems to appreciate that aspect of my personality.

Taking a deep breath, I turn my back to the spot where I broke Invier’s heart for the last time. Once Father is convinced, nobody will stop us from being together. And, I won’t have to choose between him or my responsibility to my nome. With a growing confidence, I take the first step toward solidifying my desire to have Invier and my birthright—future Titane of Nome Reffour.

No one will stop me from maneuvering this situation to my advantage.

And with that thought, I take my first step back into the chaos that is my family estate. I pass my home and thank the stars it’s still standing. Other structures on the property were not as fortunate. I pass where the Participants Building used to be and it’s nothing but debris. My heart skips a beat as I recall the sorrow I felt when I thought Invier died in the collapse. I inhale a shuddering breath with my eyes closed. A mistake. Before I can stop my wandering thoughts, an image of Invier lifting off in Bel’s airship comes to mind. The look he gave me as he stared out the window spelled several emotions. Betrayal. Fear. Disappointment. Disbelief. Anger. Hatred. Rage.

He’ll come to understand why I let him go when we see each other again. He forgave me after I lied and forced him into the Pursual. He forgave me even after I gave the Pass to Seth. Certainly, he’ll love me enough to forgive me once I’ve cleared all obstacles to our union.

I straighten my spine. There is work to be done. And with that, I move with renewed determination as I pass evidence of the cleanup underway. Dressed in their white uniforms, AI units lug away fragments from destroyed buildings. They lift and pull with superhuman strength, making quick work of things. The human soldiers, dressed in black, grunt as they expend more effort to clear away fragments that the Phalanx barely spend minutes to move.

Each soldier, human or otherwise, freezes as I walk by and offers a curt salute. When I walk pass the Phalanx, the hairs on the back of my neck rise. Although they saved the day, the Phalanx soldiers are an eerie sight with their faces obscured in helmets that reveal only their mouths. It’s strange not being able to see a soldier’s face.

Eventually, I come upon one with a shattered helmet and I realize why hiding their faces is necessary. The unit’s eyelets are nothing but a silver liquid that vacillates as I pass by, sending a cold shiver through me. As much as I want to look away, I just can’t. We’ll never convince the other nomes to overlook the Phalanx with them looking like that. I will have to make changes to their appearance, make them more palatable to the other families. Maybe that will help in the effort to convince the council they should be legal and if we get them legalized, they can’t be used as a weapon against us.

Deep in my thoughts, I don’t realize I’ve arrived at the narthex until its doors slide open and Adela stomps out. She draws in a shocked breath.

“Your father said you left.”

“I decided to stay.”

“And lover boy?” My shoulders tense. There’s a threat of violence in those seemingly simple three words.

I sidestep her and cross the room. The narthex is pristine. Evidence of Portan’s death is gone. The spot where Bel lay unconscious from her wounds is clean. And where Mehrdad blasted a bullet into Invier’s hand is a shining wooden surface. The only thing that remains of the earlier violence, is the tiny gun Mehrdad had brandished. It sits discarded on the eastern table.

“Invier?” Father asks as I step into his office. Our head of security, Landen Sohr, is no longer in the office, replaced by Father’s personal AI assistant, Aina, which stands on his left.

“He won’t be a problem.”

From behind me, Adela asks in an icy tone, “How can you be so sure? The only guarantee is if he dies.”

I glare at her. The cheek of her worrying whether someone else would reveal the secrets learned on this night when it was she who exposed all of them.

Father rounds the table and cups my chin in his hand. His touch is warm and gentle. It’s something I don’t recall him doing to me. I sigh, relaxing into his hand as I begin to feel the tell-tale signs of exhaustion.

“It’s been a whirlwind of a night and I know this is not an easy decision. However, it’s the kind you will repeatedly face when you become Titane.” His golden pupils peer into mine. “Didn’t you say you wanted to play a more decisive role in our nome?”

Does he agree with Adela that Invier must die to protect their treachery?

“I understand.” Those words are for myself as much as they are for him.

“Good, because we have work to do. I’ve called for a council meeting in a few hours and we must prepare.” His hand falls to my shoulder and he gives them a good squeeze.

“Are you ready, dear?” he asks, squinting into my face, concern showing on the lines of his forehead.

“Yes.” I know what I have to do.

“I haven’t spoken to my father all night.” Adela says behind me. “It’s time I find a quiet place to update him on tonight’s events.” Her shoes pad against the wooden floor as she heads to the hallway.

Although his hands are still on my shoulder, Father’s tenderness chills.

“Wait,” he says. “I haven’t heard your take on tonight’s events.”

“What’s there to say, your Phalanx soldiers saved the day…” She jabbers on. My plan was to impress upon Father why we can’t trust Adela. She revealed his treacherous plans to not only myself, but Bel and Invier.

That put the entire plan and our nome in jeopardy, especially because at the time, our property was crawling with enemies who could have overheard. Then, she also revealed to Mehrdad that Invier and I were in a relationship. Surely, if one was to confront her on this, she’d argue that it was a stalling tactic but I was there when it happened and I know it for what it truly was. Cowardice. She was saving herself at Invier’s expense. At my expense. And if I do a good enough job, Father will agree the act was at our nome’s expense. Such weakness is undesirable in a future co-Titane for Nome Reffour.

I won’t let her sway him to believe Invier is a threat. My feet move on their own accord and I go back into the narthex. My time there is brief and Father is firing question after question when I return to his side.

By the time either of them notice, it’s too late.

The first bullet strikes her in the left shoulder.

Adela looks down at the reddening hole, her eyes are wide when she looks back at me.

I dare not look at him, for fear of losing my nerve, but I can feel Father’s gaze on me.

The next bullet enters her stomach and her lips fall open. She makes a small sound. Blood pumps from the wound and she staggers backwards, clutching herself as if to keep her innards from tumbling out.

She stumbles and falls, landing on a knee with a hand to the floor to brace herself.

I step towards her. Confused gray eyes watch my approach and for a split second, guilt stalls my advance. I wish I could explain to her why she has to die. Something tells me she would agree with the logic—to keep Invier and my nome safe, she and her loose lips have to go.

My eyes are shut when I squeeze the trigger for the third time. A loud thud tells me she’s slumped to the shiny black floor. I avert my gaze from her, lowering the gun and facing Father instead.

Amazement and pride contours his features.

“I’ve always worried that you wouldn’t have what it takes to someday run this nome. But, today, you proved you don’t need anyone else by your side. You’ve shown you are ruthless enough for the task.”

He continues to shower me with praise while my heart hammers and my hands shake. I never realized shooting someone would be such a terrifying experience. But, I had to do it. She had to die for Invier. For me. For my nome.
“Aina, prepare that body to be go to Nome Seltan. As she was shot with Mehrdad’s gun, ensure his prints are the only ones on it. We’ll tell her father Mehrdad killed her.” He takes the gun from me and hands it to his AI.

His warm fingers wrap around my hand as he leads me out into the hallway. “I’m very proud of you, dear.”

I pull him to a stop. “You’ve told me you believe I’m capable of running our nome. If you mean it, then you must also believe I’m capable of choosing who will be by my side when that time comes.”

Although I don’t mention Invier’s name, I know Father understands exactly what I’m talking about. My pulse is a frenzied beat in my ears as I wait his response.

Rubbing his mustache, he lets out a long breath. “You’re sure he’s the one?”

“I love him.” My voice is nothing more than a puff of air and still, it’s laced in desperation. He has to say yes.

His mouth twists in contemplation before it relaxes. He nods firmly. “OK. If you believe he’s the one you want to be—”

There’s a squeal that’s surely from me as I loop my arms around his neck in a grateful hug. “Thank you!”

His shoulders are stiff at first but he soon eases into the hug, wrapping his arms around me.

 

Chapter Two

Invier

The knife embeds itself into the back of a chair. It took some of my blood on its flight, scattering it across the ship’s floor. Gravity forces a red stream to flow down from my left hand, making a mess below.

She lied to me. Again. I believed her when she said she didn’t want to lose anyone else she loved. Yet, she did this to me. She let me go. Alone. I stumble back into the kitchen and place my hand under the silver faucet. Clear water tumbles out and I rinse my hand. A first aid box on the wall produces the flexband spray I need to bandage my injury.

She never loved me.

Those four words make me stop spraying the flexband onto my hand. For whatever reason, I don’t just hear the words in my head. I feel them like the jabs of a dull knife striking my body. Before I can think, I send the bottle of flexband soaring across the kitchen. It smacks into a glass and both plummet to the floor. The spray bottle, made from metal, clangs several times, remaining intact, while the glass shatters on contact with the airship’s gleaming wooden floor.

Their destruction is satisfying, but not enough to sate the pain building within me. Without thinking, I yank open a cabinet that would have slid open if I’d given it the time it needed.

I’m so stupid.

More glasses smash around me. Shards bounce off the floor and I feel them slash my ankles. If not for the running clothes I have on, which are made from anti-abrasion fabric, the glass would slice through to cut my lower legs.

I should have listened to my gut. I knew I needed to leave the competition earlier today. Had I just reneged and left, I wouldn’t be in this situation. Now my life is at risk from a crazed Seltan and possibly, Titan Reffour. I’ll never be able to run to my family while they want me dead. I’m leaving everything I know. Everything I cherish—my family, my future as an adjudicator—all for a girl who lied to me and was never worth it to begin with.

Do you mean that?

“Yes, I do.” I scream at the top of my lungs.

Neith wasn’t worth the sacrifices of the last few days. I set aside my beliefs and swallowed my pride to participate in a competition for her hand. As a result, I was repeatedly insulted by some of my fellow participants, was shot at and had a building fall on me. Oh, I can’t forget the things her father said to me or the fact she repeatedly lied to me.

I thought I could stick it out and somehow become the Paladin. Things seemed to be going that way but then, there was the attack. And now, there’s this—me in an airship bound for an unknown destination.

The other participants had the right idea all along. They concentrated on elevating their nomes. They weren’t motivated by love. Adela might be a complete bitch, but she was right when she told me, “it’s not personal, it’s profit.”

Adela also gave me another piece of good advice. “Don’t trust anyone.” I should have listened.

“We shall arrive at our destination in forty-five minutes.”

The ship’s announcement distracts me from the hurt I feel and I stomp off to the cockpit. Glass crunches under my boots, some of the pieces caught in the treads. The beginnings of sunlight spread its tendrils over the horizon. It would be a spectacular sight at any other point in my life. Right now, the soft pink, orange and white do nothing to make me feel better.

I inspect the dashboard. I neither know how long I’ve been in the air nor where the ship is taking me to. I ask, “What’s our destination?”

“The parking arena in Ghitu. Estimated time of arrival is forty-five minutes, Scion Floran.” The ship replies.

Ghitu. That name rings a bell but my head is foggy from the outrage I still bear. The fog lifts and it hits me. The ship is taking me to the wretched Lesser Lands. Fenix was located in Ghitu. Why would I be going there?

Earlier, I told the ship to take me to its last location. That should have been Pernold, where Bel and her family live. In a perfect world, Neith and I would be on our way should be taking Neith back to Bassam. We could watch the sunrise from there. Together.

When I stepped on the ship, I counted on there being ample time to discuss a location with Neith. For that reason, I’d instructed it to head for its last location.  That was a dumb decision, just like my decision to trust Neith.

So stupid. I slam the arm of the chair in frustration.

I need to stop thinking about Neith and worry about me and the situation I’m in. I’ve got to find somewhere to hide so I can stay out of the clutches of both Adela and Titan Reffour. I scoff at a small thought. I can’t believe I thought I’d be family with that man someday.

Where can I go? If I return to my family. That’s the first place anyone would search for me. Going home would put my loved ones in harms way. No other location comes to mind.

“Where was Bel before going to Ghitu?”

“Ekebati.”

There’s no way I’m going back there.

“And before that?”

“Pernold.”

That won’t work. If I go to Bel’s family home, they would happily turn me over to Neith’s father.

Frustration mounting, I ask, “Where did Bel go before her last visit to Pernold?”

“Hesperia.”

I’ve never been to Hesperia but I recognize the name as one of the Lesser Land cities. Unlike Ghitu and other areas, it has a reputation for being laid back and not as violent as other places in the Lesser Lands.

My stomach growls and I take one last look at the console. There are less than forty-five minutes for me to figure out where to go.

“Take me to Hesperia,” I say as the airship adjusts its trajectory leading me to an uncertain future.

 

Chapter Three

Neith

Having spent the last few hours in a chair, it’s no surprise there’s a dull ache at the back of my neck and in the small of my back.

I couldn’t ask a restorer for a pain reliever while they worked fervently to save my best friend’s life. Her mom, Aunt Tari, and I sat in our chairs unable to move as we awaited word of Bel’s condition. One of Mehrdad’s goons shot her and the bullet hit something crucial causing her to lose a lot of blood. Had she not gotten help when she did from the Phalanx units, she would have died.

Aunty Tari and I were so relieved when we were told Bel would be fine. I even managed a brief nap. Fortunately, she is recovering and Aunty Tari will take her back to Pernold where she’ll recuperate over the next few days.

A few days.

That’s all I thought the Pursual would be. Just a few days to revamp Invier’s image and have him declared the Paladin so our union would be supported by Father and the other nomes. I thought my plan would run smoothly.

How wrong I was.

In just a few days, two scions are dead, a third is in a coma he will never wake from, my beloved Portan was murdered, my best friend almost died and I sent away the man I hatched the entire scheme for. Fortunately, one thing has gone right—Father agreed to support a union between Invier and I.

Now, if only I could find him to tell him the good news. Until then, I need to make sure today’s Council meeting runs flawlessly. Father and I must carefully place his treachery at Nome Cyra’s feet. If unsuccessful, we will also fail to convince the Council that our Phalanx units are not a violation of the Pact. And, we must get the units legalized by a Council vote.

I enter the pavilion and scan the room. The last time I was here, the air was electric and our guests were excited. Today, they mostly wear frowns no doubt shocked by the news that one nome attacked another so openly. There are representatives from all but two of the nomes. There is nobody here to represent Nome Cyra. Mehrdad’s family is the top-ranked nome, and if his father were here, he would lead this meeting. Given the reason for this gathering, however, Titan Cyra’s absence is understandable.

Another no-show is Nome Ategun. Also, understandable. Ika’s expulsion from the Pursual is a stain on his family that will take a while to wear off. Even the shocking events of last night are not enough to distract the other nomes from the scion’s disgraceful exit—something that was no doubt the main topic of discussion until last night’s events.

A sniffle draws my attention to the booths on my right. It’s from Invier’s mom. Her nose is red and she’s being comforted by her daughter and the Sirou girl. Her husband, Titan Floran, has his head in his hands, oblivious to his wife’s carrying on. I was by Father’s side when he informed them via visual comm Invier perished in the attack. I’d watched as Titane Floran cried out and crumpled to the ground. The grief on Titan Floran’s face had cut through me. The same way it does now.

Father said telling them Invier was dead was the smart play. How else could we explain his absence? When he returns we will tell everyone we were keeping him safe until Titan Cyra is found and captured as Mehrdad’s father ould try to kill the actual Paladin in retaliation for his son’s loss. We’ll immediately host a pairing event for the two of us which will surely distract from any question surrounding his absence.

I wish I could tell Invier’s parents that he’s alive and well. While I may not know exactly where Invier went to, I can feel it in my bones that he’s alive. There’s been no time to comm him and he has yet to contact me. He must hate me, but I’ll make him see sense when we finally communicate.

Invier’s sister gives me a dirty look that is mirrored on the Sirou girl’s face.

“Nome Cyra is not here today,” Father says as I make my way to an empty booth. He sits at one end of a long table, which is in the middle of the pavilion floor. “As the highest ranked nome, Nome Cyra’s representative is to serve as Arbiter of this council meeting. Has anyone been granted a proxy to appear on Titan Cyra’s behalf?”

The nine men and women seated at the table on the floor look at each other. They represent the Nome Council. Seven of them were elected to the position by the Nomes seated in the booths above.

As the second-ranked nome, my father is a supercouncilor. Same with Titane Carre, what with her nome being the third highest in rank. The vote of every supercouncilor weighs more than that of an ordinary council member. Specifically, two and a half times more. I already know that aspect of Council politics will play a dominant role today.

“If no one objects, as the highest nome present, Nome Reffour shall act as Arbiter and I’ll call this meeting to order.”

Loic’s mother, Titane Carre drums her fingers on the table to a discordant chord made louder by how silent the pavilion has become. Even Titane Floran’s sniffling has come to an end.

Father rises from his seat. “I cede my seat and position as today’s Arbiter to my daughter, the Scioness Neith of Nome Reffour.”

I don’t know much about chairing a council meeting but Father says it’ll be straightforward. As my nome was attacked, he wagers most on the council will have a hard time refusing my wishes. My goal is to use whatever sympathy and goodwill I gain to secure my nome.

First task – blame the Cyras for the deaths of the scions.

Second task – get a majority of the Council to legalize the Phalanx.

Third task – do it quickly.

I’m ready.

***

“Most, if not all of you, are aware that this estate was attacked last night.” I meet Titan Kriel’s gaze. He’s seated at the other end of the table and strokes his chin, listening intently. “Undoubtedly, you saw some of the damage as you made your way here this morning.”

I look from Titan Kriel to Titane Yetun and then, to Titane Opitz, who sits with her hands clasped on the table. Both women look on with deadpan expressions and I bite back my words momentarily.

Aunty Tari’s lips holds a small smile of camaraderie and to her right is Seth’s father. He gives me an almost imperceptible nod and only then am I able to speak again. Their support fuels my words.

“This was not just an attack on my family but an attack on all of us. If one, then all,” I say reminding everyone of an adage unique to the Group of Twenty and their solemn promise to consider an attack on one family as an attack on all nomes. “What other reason was there to systematically kill scions and drop bombs on a private estate?” I look at each of the councilors at the table, making eye contact so as to let my message sink in to them.

Many in the booths above nod in agreement with me. Some, like the Florans, look to sorrowful to follow my argument, but I’m certain they will by the time this meeting is done. Father, sitting in the booth I just left, smiles in approval of my progress so far.

I tap a button on the table. “Please watch the following.”

A screen in the table lights up in front of each Council member and a silent video plays. Large rectangular screens also lower form the ceiling, for those in the booths.

There are sharp gasps across the pavilion and angry mumbling. As I lived through the experience, I’m not surprised by the reaction.

“Note the attackers wore Nome Cyra’s insignia and were led by Scion Mehrdad Cyra.” I say once the video ends. “The Group of Twenty has lived in peace for centuries because it’s members have stridently observed the Pact. I don’t need to remind anyone that each family swore to uphold the agreement and it specifies that no nome may attack another in the brutal manner we just witnessed.”

While Father believes the Pact is open to interpretation on whether a private non-human army is legal, there is no question about the document’s stance on murder. The killing of any nome member is punishable by death. The council need only vote to make it so. Of course, the accused can challenge the decision, thereby placing the matter before the adjudicators–Invier’s family. Under the circumstances, however, Nome Cyra would want to avoid taking this issue to the Florans. They believe they lost a son and even though arbitrators must observe a strict legal code, one could safely assume the death penalty would still stand.

“Please bring in Scion Cyra.”

The pavilion doors open and Mehrdad is led in by Sohr. Clad in a loose-fitiing khaki jumpsuit, his hands are shackled in a bolt. The energy it disseminates pops and crackles, getting louder as he tromps to the table. I’ve never worn one before, but I’m told any attempt to separate bolted wrists more than an inch or so will cause terrible pain.

Adela’s father, Titan Banne Seltan, jumps out of his seat and his chair flips backward. It hits the onyx floor with a loud crack.

“You bastard!” His eyes are wild.

Like Invier’s parents, he believes Mehrdad is responsible for his child’s death. The Titan lunges in the captive’s direction but thinks better of it and returns to his seat, which he picks up and places by the table. The contempt on his face is evident for all to see.

Mehrdad looks calm. Well-rested even. As if the events from a few hours ago never happened.

Titane Carre is also on her feet, though she’s gripping onto the table’s edge as if she’d flutter to the ground without the support. She says nothing but the tears she sheds speak volumes. Her son Loic was the first to die and at the time, she was informed he’d died from a reaction to an undisclosed allergen. Now, she’s been told that Mehrdad is responsible for her son’s death and her lips quiver as she watches him approach.

“—murderer—”

“—killed all those people and—”

“—kill him—”

Voices sputter across the pavilion revealing the general consensus of those gathered. Things don’t look too good for Mehrdad and I’m glad.

Sohr holds Mehrdad not far from Titan Kriel, which is fortunate. If he were to come close to my end of the table, either Titan Seltan on my right or Titane Carre on my left, would kill him. Their blood lust is evident.

 

Chapter Four

Neith

“Ladies and Gentlemen of the Council. Attendees in the booths,” I glance to those seated above. Seth is now beside Invier’s mother. Both he and the Sirou girl rub the Titane’s back as Song sobs into a handkerchief. Invier’s father hasn’t changed position since the last time I looked at him.

Returning my attention to the more immediate matter at hand, I say to Mehrdad, “We viewed footage of your nome’s attack on this estate and the resulting deaths. Do you admit or deny responsibility?”

“I admit.” His answer is amplified by the small black microphone attached to his collar. It booms across the cavernous pavilion – defiant and strong.

My eyes meet Father’s. This time, his eyes are narrowed and his mouth hangs in a crooked scowl. He’s just waiting for me to get to the part he’s interested in.

“And do you also admit that your father told you to attack Nome Reffour?”

He straightens his back. “No. My father had nothing to do with the attack.”

My mouth goes dry. This is the tricky part of our plan. If Father is correct, it doesn’t matter what Mehrdad says, the other nomes will assume his father consented to the attack and if so, I will need to pounce at that moment and use it to secure my family’s position.

“Liar!” Someone yells from the booths.

“Goran must have—”

“Tell the truth!”

“There’s no way…”

I take in the measure of the crowd and glance at Father, who rubs his chin in satisfaction. Things are going the way he planned. I just have to do my part. That shouldn’t be too hard considering Mehrdad had Bel shot, had Portan killed and shot Invier’s hand.

“Scion Cyra,” I say quietly. “Are we to believe that Titan Cyra did not sanction your attack on Nome Reffour? The same way we are to believe that you and your nome didn’t kill off your fellow scions? Or maybe we shouldn’t believe the video footage we’ve seen.”

Mehrdad doesn’t even flinch at my words. He just stares at me stonily.

“Maybe I shouldn’t believe what I saw with my own eyes then. Your man shooting my …” I let my voice fall. “Master Portan must have died by some other means.”

Still no reaction from Mehrdad.

“I want him dead!” Titane Carre says through faint sobs. Titan Damil places his hand on hers, patting it to reassure her of his support.

Banne is on his feet yet again. “Me too. He must pay for -”

“Sit, Titan Seltan. The Council, and not individual members, will vote to determine Scion Cyra’s fate.” I say with steel in my voice, holding the Titan’s gray gaze. Those eyes, just like the ones that glared at me during Adela’s final moments. He’s breathing so hard, I see the spittle escaping from his lips.

“Yes, Arbiter Reffour is right.” Titane Quarton Yetun says from the other end of the table. “Whatever happens to Scion Cyra must be a council decision. Sit down, Banne. This will be over soon.” Her tone has just the right effect as Adela’s father blinks several times as if waking from a stupor. His hardened face relaxes and he sits down. Not before scowling at Mehrdad.

“Let the vote begin. Titane Carre, the floor is yours.” I lift my hand to Loic’s mother, who sits to my left.

She wipes a tear with one hand, her other still ensconced in Titan Damil’s.

“Mehrdad,” she says, her eyes on the table. “You and Loic were friends from childhood.” She glares at him, blinking back tears, “You…you killed my baby!” She rises, yanking her hand out of the Titan’s. “How could you kill him?”

“I didn’t.” Mehrdad says calmly.

“Your vote, Titane?” I ask before he can speak again, keeping my tone soft.

She whips her head in my direction and there are pronounced veins in her neck.

“Death!”

A murmur weaves itself across the booths.

“I vote with Nome Carre.” Titan Damil mutters, assisting the Titane back into her seat. When he speaks again, it’s with more certainty. “Nobody should be able to subvert the law in this manner.”

Titane Yetun stands. “I agree. The Pact must be observed.”

The room turns to Titane Opitz.

“As they have suffered the greatest injustice, I forfeit my vote to Nome Reffour,” she says.

A forfeit.

Typically, the votes of the three highest-ranked council members have more value than those of other council members. By giving me her vote, Titane Opitz has allowed my vote to have more weight than it ordinarily would. Such an act only happens during times of great distress for the nomes. In my seven years of attending council meetings, I’ve never witnessed a forfeit. However, those videos of Arbiters I was forced to watch showed me how a forfeit works.

I look at Titan Dren Kriel who’s lost in his pondering. Will he forfeit his vote as well? His late father was very good friends with my Father but that could count for nothing as rumor has it that this Titan Kriel is very different from the last one. He might not be willing to honor the alliances and friendships that came before him.

“Titan Kriel? Are you ready to vote, sir?”

He’s the second youngest person at this table, having only recently taken control of his nome. I remember his coronation day. I’d kissed Invier for the first time under a magnolia tree.

“We should postpone this vote, wait to learn more about what happened last night. Why don’t we wait to find Titan Cyra…”

Boos drown out the rest of his speech and Titane Carre leaps to her feet, “Did the Cyras give our children that same time before killing them?”

I walk over to her and wrap an arm around her shoulder. My expression is sufficiently sad and when she looks at me she says, “He doesn’t deserve leniency.”

“I understand your pain, Titane,” I say softly into her ear. “He deserves to be punished, but I beg you to please stay down.”

That wild look in her eyes softens slightly and she sniffs back more tears before lowering herself into her seat.

Once the room’s tone lowers sufficiently, Seth’s father rises to his feet.

“I just lost my lovely wife, Lew,” Titan Talum says, staring down at fisted hands. “My boy was able to sit by his dying mother due to the kindness of the Scioness Reffour, who granted him the Pass. Had he been here instead of home with us, who knows …” His words disappear on a choked squeal. When he recovers, he says, “I wholeheartedly forfeit my vote to Nome Reffour’s Scioness.”

Another forfeited vote in my nome’s favor. My heart leaps and I look to Father. A small smile plays on his lips.

Aunty Tari is next to speak and she stands. Fingers spread on the table, she says, “My youngest daughter, Belema, spent several hours fighting for her life this morning.” She pauses. “I’m glad she’s still alive.”

She’s quiet for a few seconds and I know she’s thinking about how things could have been worse with Bel. There was a time when we truly believed she wouldn’t make it to dawn. I let out a grateful breath and watch as she does the same. “My vote is yours, Scioness.”

A third forfeited vote.

Titan Seltan doesn’t wait for Bel’s mother to sit. “He needs to die, right now!”

I do the calculations in my head. With the addition of Titane Carre’s super councilor vote, there are five and a half votes for Mehrdad’s death. Titan Kriel obviously voted against but with my forfeited votes, I hold the deciding decision. My two and a half votes added to those forfeited to me means I have an equal amount as those who seek Mehrdad suffer the death penalty.

Had Mehrdad’s father attended this meeting, he could have applied his super councilor vote and his wealth to possibly sway voters toward keeping his son alive. I harken back to Father telling Mehrdad that his father would abandon him in this time of need. With Father’s words ringing true, I realize Titan Cyra father really is heartless. How could anyone abandon their child? My own father has been cold most of my life, but even I can say he wouldn’t leave me to my fate the way Mehrdad’s father has.

And now, it’s time for me to vote. Looking down at the table, I pretend to study the wood grain, which circles and loops across the surface in an unpredictable pattern.

“I, Scioness Neith Reffour, vote for leniency.”

That gets a reaction from Mehrdad. It also gets a reaction from the crowd. Some members yelled excitedly, even before hearing the end of my statement, assuming my vote was for death. Soon enough, realization dawns on people and the pavilion falls into a hush. Confused looks appear on many faces. At that moment, I hear Portan’s voice in my head. You must understand the importance of managing several opinions and voices without losing your own. No matter what my audience thinks, they will bend to my voice and my will.

“What?” Titane Carre, blinks furiously, her eyes thinning to slits.

I let a few seconds pass before continuing, “Last night was the worst experience of my life but I worry that meting out the death penalty will create more issues for us as a collective.” I study the booths as I speak and the confused expressions are morphing into resistant ones.

Am I being fervent enough? This will be the greatest test of my ability to bend others to my will. Expressed or not. “How will killing Scion Cyra bring back the good people we lost?”

A few councilors murmur to each other.

“What do you propose, Arbiter?” Titan Kriel asks.

I close my eyes as if considering the question. “Let him live with the cloak of his crimes. Let him rise each morning and see the faces of those he took from us.”

Above, whispers strengthen, but I can’t tell whether they agree or not.

“Strip him of his position. Strip his entire nome of its wealth.” That gets some traction and a few in the booths nod in agreement and for good reason. My suggestion means every single nome rises up the ranks. It’s a benefit to all. Plus, they think the profit coming to the Cyras will trickle down to them. It will, for some, but not all.

“We don’t have to do things the way we always have.” As Arbiter, I’m in a position to encourage a slow but meaningful change from certain of our customs. Let me plant the seed right here, right now. It will hopefully pay off when it’s time to discuss the legality of the Phalanx.

I’m still talking when I see a flash of movement to my left. I fail to react until it’s too late to stop anything.

Titane Carre is behind Mehrdad, whose head is still high as if defying those gathered to satisfy their wish for his death. Landen Sohr steps out of the Titane’s way. When I hear the crowd roar in approval, I force my way over but am held back by Aunty Tari.

Mehrdad’s shocked expression is all I see at first. His mouth is open as if he’d like to shout something. He reaches for the back of his neck. His wide eyes are on me. They’re cold and unafraid. But only for a few seconds as they roll upwards and he plummets to his knees.

Titane Carre stands over him. Her weapon of choice gleams in crimson. The bejeweled talon ring on the index hand of her right hand. I watch, entranced, as the black floor camouflages the blood dripping down. She must have stabbed him at the back of the neck. Through the pavilion’s clamor I swear I hear the sound of something heavy hitting stone.

It’s just Mehrdad’s body slamming against the floor with his pleading eyes open set on mine.

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