Preview: chapters 1 and 2
Sky stared around the clearing. He found that his breathing was shallow as he tried to take in each of the creatures filling every open space at the treeline. They all waited silently, staring at Gayle Mendosa. Watching as their Queen stepped towards where he and his fellow Asters had gathered all their supplies. Waiting for the moment that she would vanish from the Amazon Rainforest.
You still want to know how I survived six months ago? Look around you and find part of your answer.
Gayle’s voice echoed in Sky’s mind. There was something equally beautiful and terrifying about the gathering of animals. On the one hand they looked lovely, from the furry monkeys with the dark eyes to the brilliantly coloured birds. But on the other hand, Sky knew what primal force could awaken within them, would they ever need to fiercely protect what was theirs. And Gayle had been theirs to protect.
How they’d managed to keep Gayle safe from Kyra was still anybody’s guess. As the most powerful King in history, Kyra wouldn’t have let Gayle out of her grasp if she’d had enough power to keep her. But that wasn’t a story Gayle had ever been inclined to tell the Asters.
Sky hoped he’d hear the story one day. Perhaps Gayle would trust him enough. That was his goal after all. For her to trust him. For him to help her. She didn’t see her life as one that was worth living. Not after she’d do the one thing she was born for to do: kill Kyra. Sky knew he had until then to show her what life could be like. Even if it wasn’t the life she’d imagined for herself when she was growing up. When she knew nothing about her magic or her destiny.
Sky tore his eyes away from the animals, and followed Lian to the centre of the clearing. Matu, Nathan and Sophie were already there, also looking around at the spectacle of the creatures gathered in Gayle’s honour. The only one who wasn’t looking at the creatures was Tomas Mendosa. He was standing next to the only table that hadn’t been folded up yet. The body of his passed wife lay atop it, wrapped in two blankets. He stood beside Cara’s body silently, looking at Gayle suspiciously. Sky noticed that Gayle was purposefully avoiding eye-contact with her father. Nothing specific was known about what had happened between those two. Though the blood splatters around the tent and the deep wound in Tomas’ shoulder had left little to the imagination. Sky wondered if the two of them would engage in a fight again. If Gayle would leave her father alive again. Part of him was surprised that Tomas had even survived this attack. If Gayle had wanted him dead, he would be. So, was there a reason why Gayle still wanted him alive? But treated him like he was dead to her?
Sky shook himself mentally. It was no use asking himself these questions.
“Are we ready then?” Gayle asked, looking around the group.
Sky looked around, too. As far as he was concerned, they were ready. So, why were Matu and Nathan hesitating?
The two boys exchanged glances. Matu nodded to their youngest brother and Nathan turned to Gayle. With their kindred magic, his of Flora and hers of Fauna, Nathan shared a connection none of the other Asters had with Gayle. It had only been because of him that Gayle hadn’t killed Lian and Sophie when her rage took over after her mother died. Now, it made him the safest spokesperson, especially on potentially sensitive topics. Since they were all still learning what could trigger her.
“Before we leave, you must know what to expect when we arrive,” Nathan started, with his soft West Coast American accent deliberately calm, neutral.
“And what’s that?” Gayle asked.
“Axel has spoken to all Affinites on the island and out in the world through a broadcast. He has informed them about our mission here and that you and Tomas are alive and well. And that you will be coming with us to Saluverus,” Nathan explained.
He paused for a moment.
“And?” Gayle pushed, sounding bored.
“He has also informed them of your mother’s death,” Matu continued, glancing at Tomas as he spoke. “There will be a funeral.”
“This is supposed to come as a surprise to me?” Gayle said.
Sky gritted his teeth. He glanced at Tomas and found that his eyes were drilling into the back of Gayle’s head. But he said nothing. It was like he could say nothing. No matter how insignificantly Gayle treated Cara Mendosa’s death. Her own mother’s death.
“I suppose not,” Nathan said, before Matu could say anything else.
“How have the people responded to the news?” Lian asked.
“There have been celebrations ever since the broadcast. Those will not die down once the people on the island lay eyes on Gayle,” Nathan said.
“That was to be expected,” Sky said, feeling the sudden need for a drink and a great party after everything they’d been through on this mission.
Gayle huffed. “What else?”
“They are calling you the Survivor Queen,” Nathan said.
Gayle rolled her eyes. “Original,” she muttered.
“You can’t blame them,” Sophie said.
“They should know I am not their Queen,” Gayle said, looking at Sophie pointedly. “They should know that I don’t intend to stay and wear the crown.”
“They will know,” Matu said strongly.
“I’m sure you will tell them who I really am.” Gayle grinned chillingly.
“I will,” Matu replied. Sky could feel the tension between the two. The hatred that his brother had for Gayle was palpable. For what she’d done to his father, all those months ago.
“Good. I want you to,” Gayle replied coolly.
“They could hate you for it,” Sky interjected.
Gayle turned her head towards him. “I know. Just like he does.” She gestured towards Matu with her right hand. “I don’t intend to hide the things I’ve done. I would only do that if I regretted them. And even then, I’d own them instead of denying them.”
Sky gritted his teeth at the implication.
“You don’t regret killing my father?” Matu ground out.
Gayle cocked her head to the left. “I don’t even remember doing it.”
Matu turned his head down, Swahili swearwords pouring from his lips. Both Sky and Nathan jumped in between them, even though it didn’t seem like Matu was going to take any physical action. Instead, he was running his fingers over the burn scars he had incurred while fighting the Chimera to get a hold of Aiyana’s Shield. Aiyana… the original Queen, and who’s magic Gayle had inherited.
That fight with the Chimera seemed like such a long time ago now. Sky didn’t know what had transpired between his oldest brother and Gayle after he’d been taken prisoner, but Matu letting his pride get in the way of Gayle being able to help heal the burns on his arm wasn’t the smartest thing he had done. Now he could have permanent nerve damage; something that needed to be properly examined in the medical bay back on Saluverus.
“Enough,” Nathan said. “This isn’t helping.”
“We need to be able to find a way to work together without wanting to rip each other’s throats out every second,” Sophie added.
“Better keep him far away from me then,” Gayle said cheerfully. “Just in case he does decide to try it.”
Sky looked at her and said under his breath, “You baited him and you know it.”
Gayle flashed him a grin. “Kings will do the same. I am merely teaching an ally how to keep his cool.”
“Bullshit,” Sky snapped at her.
“She shouldn’t be coming to the island,” Matu said. His eyes were firmly on Gayle. “No one will be safe if she’s there.”
“No one will be safe as long as Kyra is alive,” Gayle retorted. “Isn’t she the bigger threat?”
“You tell me,” Matu snarled.
“In the broadcast Axel warned everyone on the island to keep their distance from you,” Nathan interjected quickly, looking at Gayle, and still holding his hands up between her and Matu. “He told everyone you experienced major trauma and need time to heal. If they stay away from you, will you stay away from them?”
“I do not make promises I can’t keep,” Gayle replied simply.
“I wouldn’t believe you even if you did promise,” Matu snapped.
“You would kill more Affinites?” Sophie asked, her soft voice cut through the clearing. “The people who celebrate your life? Who have prayed for your return and wellbeing since the day you were born?”
“People pray to gods all the time. People still end up dead.”
“Gayle—” Sky started.
“They are not my people. You are not my people,” Gayle said coldly. “You all know this. Don’t act so surprised every time I remind you of it. I am coming with you because together we have the best chance of killing Kyra. That is the only reason I am coming to that godforsaken island of yours.”
Gayle looked at everyone around her. “If those people on your island don’t give me a reason to kill them, then they have nothing to fear from me. Then you have nothing to fear from me.” She looked at Matu last. “If you are so concerned for their wellbeing, I suggest you make it your mission that they never give me a reason to want them dead.”
Sky looked between Gayle and Matu. Gayle was breathing more heavily, and Matu was glaring at Queen Aiyana’s reincarnation. The Survivor Queen. The deadliest creature on the face of the earth, barring Kyra. If the Asters and the Small Council could keep her on their side, they could possibly wipe out all seven Kings of the Underworld in a single generation. But only if they could get Gayle to stay. And in staying, keep her weapons firmly pointed towards their enemies, not to the people beside her.
When no one spoke, Gayle opened her mouth again. “Are we going yet? Or have you changed your mind?”
“We need you to kill Kyra,” Sophie said. “And you need us.”
Gayle nodded slowly.
“That will have to do for now,” Sophie added.
“For now,” Matu grumbled.
“Then what are we waiting for?” Gayle said.
Sky paused, wondering if anyone would mention Gayle’s appearance. Specifically, the two black lines she had drawn diagonally across her right eye. Those, alongside the tight braids against her skull and her torn, left ear and those piercing, green eyes, seemed to only project a warning, to keep your distance. Something very different to what the people were expecting of a returning Queen. Even with Axel’s broadcast.
After another moment’s silence, Sky realised that no one was going to speak. They were waiting for him. He stepped away from in between Gayle and Matu and over towards Tomas and the body of his wife on the table beside him.
Sky met Tomas’ gaze for a moment. “I have to shimmer her to the morgue.”
Tomas looked down at his wife, wrapped in blankets. The nod he gave was almost too small to register. Sky placed his hand the body’s shoulder gently. He reached into his magic and saw how the Band on his wrist started glowing a bright blue. He summoned his shimmer and focused on the morgue in Saluverus’ castle. Sky had been there before; he could picture it as clearly as any other room he’d ever visited.
Once he was sure that his shimmer had locked its location in place, he set it free. A bright blue light appeared. It enveloped Cara’s body for a moment. Then it disappeared, leaving nothing behind on the table.
Tomas drew in a sharp breath as he looked at where his wife’s body lay only moments before. He looked back up at Sky.
“I am sorry for your loss,” Sky told him.
All Tomas did was give another nod. Words were beyond him at this point, Sky supposed. Too many emotions were running high. Sky couldn’t imagine what six months as Kyra’s prisoner could do to a person. Even with the magic of Endurance to help you. Sky had only been held captive for less than two days; that had already been torture. It was hard to fathom how Tomas could have borne it for that much longer, only to be freed and find his wife dead and his daughter a monster.
Sky turned his attention to all the boxes and bags next. Once again, he focused on his magic. This time it took a little more concentration, mostly because he couldn’t touch every single box. Well, he could, but it would take forever. So, he opted to concentrate a little harder. He held his hand out over the pile of supplies and focused on the mission centre, also in Saluverus’ castle.
After a few short moments, the blue light of Sky’s shimmer appeared again, and all the supplies vanished.
That just left the seven people standing in the middle of the clearing. Sky turned to them. They had all gathered in a circle, waiting for Sky to tell them he was ready to shimmer them all home.
First though, Nathan turned to Gayle. “We’ll be shimmering to the Board Room. There you will meet Axel.”
“The Ambassador,” Gayle mused.
“Yes,” Nathan replied.
Sky came to stand beside Gayle. “Will you bait him, too?”
Gayle glanced at him as she offered him her hand. “Depends on what his intentions are.”
“They are the same as ours,” Sky replied, taking her hand. On his other side, he took Sophie’s.
Gayle shrugged. “We’ll see what he says.”
Sky turned his attention to the rest of the group. Everyone in the circle was holding on to the two people standing on either side of them. They all seemed ready to go.
“Are we ready?” Sky asked.
“Let’s get this over with,” Matu mumbled.
“Look at that,” Gayle said. “There is something we can agree on.”
“All right, let’s go,” Sky said quickly, before the two of them engaged in yet another battle of words, and perhaps later in an actual battle.
For the third time, Sky reached into his magic. This was easiest; shimmering somewhere he himself had to go as well. He only had to picture where he was going. That was enough for everyone touching him to travel with him.
The blue light of his magic filled his vision and the Asters, Gayle and Tomas Mendosa were whisked away from the Amazon Rainforest. Right before Sky could feel the stone flooring of the Board Room underneath his feet, he wondered what the first meeting between Gayle and Saluverus’ Ambassador would be like. He doubted it would go smoothly.
But there was only one way to find out.
When the blue light vanished from his vision, Sky found himself surprised that the world beyond the Board Room on the other side of the wide window was dark, and that bright, artificial lighting lit up the room. Sky checked his watch quickly; it had been around five o’clock in the afternoon in Brazil, and the sun had already started to set there. For some reason, he’d got his time zones all wrong, and hadn’t expected it to be half past ten at night here.
Sky shook himself mentally and turned his attention to what was about to unfold before him. He found himself immediately holding his breath for what was to come. He didn’t know how many people would be waiting for them in the Board Room, or what Gayle was going to do or say the second she laid eyes on whoever was there. All he knew was that whatever best-case scenario the Small Council would be hoping for out of this first interaction, it was never going to happen. At this point, Sky had known Gayle long enough to know that for sure.
A good start was that there were very few people in the room. Only Axel and Sylvia stood at the head of the table when the Asters shimmered in with Tomas and Gayle. They were standing with calm authority, and not, Sky noticed, in any way deferentially. Whatever they were truly feeling, it was well hidden behind their masks of professionalism.
Both the Ambassador and the Consul’s eyes found Gayle immediately. She was the smallest and youngest in their group, but as always, she radiated a strength that was almost tangible.
Nothing in her changed as she laid eyes on the leader of the island. Her arms remained relaxed at her sides as she let go of Sky’s hand. Her face was calm, but Sky knew all too well that a storm could be brewing behind those glowing, green eyes.
Sylvia cleared her throat and turned her attention to Tomas. Relief washed over her face and she stepped towards him quickly.
“I am so happy to see you alive and well,” she said kindly as she wrapped her arms around the Ceder of Endurance. The hug ended quickly, with Sylvia looking up at Tomas with a sudden sadness in her eyes. “I am so terribly sorry for your loss,” she added more quietly. “I truly believed we would get all three of you back here safely.”
“As did I,” Tomas replied, sombrely.
“We all did.” Axel’s voice cut through the room. Both Tomas and Sylvia looked away from each other to look at him.
“Ambassador,” Tomas acknowledged.
Axel nodded to Tomas before turning his attention back to Gayle, who had been standing silently, watching the interaction between her father and Sylvia.
“Gayle Mendosa,” Axel started, with what Sky supposed was meant to be a warm smile but came off forced and unnatural. So, there were some nerves there, Sky realised. “Welcome to Saluverus.”
When, again, nothing changed in Gayle, Axel continued. “We are terribly sorry for your loss.” He stepped towards Gayle with an outstretched hand. “I would like to introduce mys—”
“Which one?” Gayle asked with deceptive calm, interrupting the Ambassador without so much as raising her voice. She did nothing to move towards his hand. She showed no intention of shaking it.
Axel cleared his throat. “Excuse me?”
Gayle looked at him thoughtfully for a moment before clarifying. “Which loss are you sorry for?”
Sky found himself pressing his lips together, not quite understanding or trusting where Gayle was going with this question. He glanced at Axel, whose shoulders had stiffened.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” Axel said carefully.
Gayle bared her teeth, if ever so slightly. “I have lost quite a lot over the past six months. But you must know all about that, I’m sure. So, my question is, which loss in particular are you sorry for? Or is that single statement supposed to encompass them all so we can move away from our differences and step into a brand-new future where we leave the past behind?”
There was an edge to Gayle’s voice that Sky didn’t like. She was testing the Ambassador already.
Axel visibly swallowed. He glanced at Tomas for only a moment, quickly realising he would get no help from there. Then he looked back at Gayle. “Gayle…” he began. Then he started again. “I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot here.”
“We got off on the wrong foot months ago, Ambassador. Whether we already knew each other or not.”
“I—” Axel tried, but Gayle would not let him speak.
“You made decisions that altered my life. I will not stand here and shake your hand and have you introduce yourself to me as if I don’t already know exactly who you are and what you have done.”
Axel raised his chin. “And what about what you have done? You say you have experienced loss. So have the people here. By your hand. I will not have you accuse me when you yourself have caused enough pain that you should be regretting. Not here. Not in our home.”
And there it was: the other side to the Ambassador that Sky knew existed. The true leader of the island who would never back down from what was being said to him, no matter who was saying it. On the one hand Sky found himself impressed by Axel’s pride and strength. On the other hand, it was incredibly risky to speak this way to a proven killer with little conscience.
But Gayle seemed little affected. “Ah,” she said, grinning. “You are turning it around on me so you don’t have to take any responsibility yourself. I’m sure that works when you’re dealing with idiots most of the time, but it won’t work on me.”
“Gayle, he does take responsibility,” Sky tried. “He apologised—”
Gayle turned her head towards him. “He was sorry for my loss. He did not apologise for causing those losses.” She looked back at Axel, her green gaze piercing. “Don’t expect me to not know the difference.”
“I made choices based on information I had at the time. I am sorry that the outcome wasn’t anything any of us wanted or were able to foresee—” Gayle crossed her arms as the Ambassador spoke. Clearly, she had other opinions on the matter, but she chose to let him go on, at least for a while. “But that is the job. Sometimes you do everything that is in your power, and it still isn’t enough. And I will not have you stand there, talking to me like that, when you did have choices, and you chose wrong. You chose violence. You chose taking the lives of innocent people—”
“You want me to apologise for the things I have done? I won’t,” Gayle snapped, not letting him finish anymore. “You want me to feel remorse? You want me to have regrets? I don’t. And does that make me a monster? That’s fine, I don’t care. It still makes me better than you. Funnily enough, it makes me more trustworthy than you.”
“Because I am honest. I own up to what I did. I make choices, and I stand by them, whether you understand my reasons or not. I don’t hide behind petty excuses. You say the worst of what happened was beyond your control? Bull—shit.”
Axel narrowed his eyes. Gayle raised her eyebrows.
Sylvia stepped beside Axel. Her face radiated warmth and kindness. “We do not expect to forget about the past,” she said. “But we do want you here. And we want to try and make your transition here as easy as possible.”
Gayle turned her head towards the Consul, and looked at her expectantly.
“You’ve had a very challenging couple of days. Let’s talk about how we’re going to work together another time,” Sylvia added.
The corner of Gayle’s mouth twitched. She looked back at Axel. “Does she always save you when you run out of things to say?”
“Watch your tongue,” Axel growled.
“Let’s just get you settled first,” Sylvia said quickly. “I would like to give you a tour of the castle, show you where you will be sleeping. Then tomorrow we’d like to show you the rest of the island. Is that all right?”
Gayle glanced at the window, to the dark world beyond. “That’s fine,” she said absently.
“All right then,” Sylvia said. “Follow me.”
Sylvia headed to the door. Gayle was close behind her. Sylvia placed a hand on the handle, but turned around to Gayle before using it. “Welcome to Saluverus.”
Only Tomas remained behind in the Board Room with Axel. When the rest of them stepped out of the room, the hallway beyond was quiet. There was no one there, and yet Sky felt his heart pound. He wondered what would happen when the people of the castle laid eyes on Gayle for the first time. There was no way Sylvia was going to avoid everyone while she was showing Gayle around. It being after ten o’clock in the evening would hopefully help.
Matu, Lian and Sophie bid their goodbyes and headed down the corridor to the left, back to their rooms. Sky and Nathan remained with Gayle and Sylvia.
“The room we just came from is the Board Room. It is where the Council discusses information with the Asters and briefs them on missions,” Sylvia explained.
Gayle was looking up and down the hallway that stretched to the left and right from the Board Room’s door. “I assumed so,” she replied, still as if her thoughts were elsewhere.
“If you would follow me,” Sylvia said, seemingly unfazed by Gayle’s disinterest.
Gayle gave the Consul a short nod before following her to the right. Sky and Nathan followed behind them.
“We have tried to dial down the celebrations of your return,” Sylvia said as she led the way. “But I am afraid there will still be parties in town this evening. They should all be finished by tomorrow. We have announced that your mother’s funeral shall be held two days from now.”
Gayle’s face remained neutral at the mention of her mother. Sky could see nothing that would convey any sort of emotion. Part of him wished that there was even a sliver of pain visible. Anything that could tell him that, at the very least, she was grieving. If only in her own way.
Sylvia glanced down at the bag that Gayle still had slung around her shoulder. “If you need any new clothing for the funeral, or for anything at all, please do not hesitate to ask me.”
Gayle glanced at Sylvia. The two of them were about the same height; Gayle perhaps still a little bit shorter. “You are going to burn my mother?”
Sylvia nodded, seeming not fazed that Gayle probably wasn’t responding the way she had expected. “As is our custom. Unless you would prefer something else?”
“My mother chose to become one of your people. Who am I to change the traditional customs of her funeral?” Gayle replied casually.
Sky hated the way she said your people. On some level, of course, he understood how she didn’t feel like she was one of them. But to keep saying it like that was still aggravating. She wasn’t even trying. Sky was determined to help her try.
“You are the daughter of the deceased,” Sylvia said. “And a part of our nation. You have every right to voice an opinion.”
“Do what your tradition asks of you. I don’t care either way,” Gayle said.
Sky watched Sylvia swallow. Then nod.
“Will you be there?” Sky asked.
Gayle glanced over her shoulder to look at him. “As will be expected from the daughter of the deceased.”
“I didn’t mean to come across disrespectfully before,” Sylvia said quickly.
“You didn’t,” Gayle replied coolly.
Sylvia nodded again, if somewhat tensely. “All right,” she said.
“What else do I need to know about your customs?” Gayle asked.
They were about to turn the corner at the end of the hallway. “Well—” Sylvia started, but she was immediately cut off. For around the corner, the next stretch of hall was lined with Affinites on both sides. Young and old stood side by side, their backs against the wall, all craning their necks to stare at Gayle Mendosa as she stepped into view.
Both she and Sylvia stopped still at the sight, and waited. Sky looked over Gayle’s shoulder to take it all in.
The hallway was at least a hundred feet in length, and Affinites stood along both walls until the end. Sky recognised most of them. They were all Affinites who lived in the castle. They all remained silent as Gayle took them all in.
Sylvia leaned over to Gayle and whispered, “We closed the doors of the castle so not every Affinite could come in to try and see you. These are the people who live here. We didn’t want to make them leave.”
Gayle didn’t look at Sylvia. She eyes continued to scan the people lining the hall. “As you shouldn’t,” Gayle replied quietly.
The Affinites didn’t move towards Gayle. They weren’t trying to speak to her. It seemed like they only wanted to see her. Of course, they’d watched Axel’s broadcast. But to hear the truth, and to see it… those were two very different things.
Sky wondered what was going through their minds right now. Gayle was still in a t-shirt and shorts. Her hair was still tightly braided across both sides of her head, while a looser braid came over the top. The missing top half of her left ear could be seen clearly. There was jungle dirt on her skin and clothes, her leg was still bandaged and the scars that ran up and down her arms and legs were very visible. And of course, she still bore the two black lines across her face. Even though she looked slightly out of place amongst all these clean, well-clothed people, the way they looked at her and kept a respectful distance from her only amplified the importance of her presence.
Gayle stepped forward, nearing the first Affinites to her left and right. She looked left first, and Sky realised that it was Anna, Lian’s best friend. Anna and Gayle locked eyes. Respectfully, Anna bowed her head to Gayle. In return, Gayle did nothing. Instead, she turned her eyes to the person standing to her right. Here stood a middle-aged man Sky recognised but couldn’t name. He, too, bowed his head respectfully.
Gayle moved on, looking at every Affinite individually, and every Affinite in return did the same thing as Anna and the first man. Everything happened in complete silence. The only thing audible was the sound of footsteps as Gayle, Sylvia, Nathan and Sky moved along the hallway.
When Sky passed Anna, she reached out and took his arm. Sky turned to look at her, and she mouthed Lian’s name. Her face was a questioning one.
“Our common room,” Sky whispered as quietly as possible.
Anna mouthed her thanks. She glanced at Gayle, who was quite a bit along the hallway by now, before heading away in the opposite direction.
Sky turned back to follow closely behind Gayle. While walking down the hallway, Sylvia had opted to walk slightly behind Gayle, as if to respect her space, the way every Affinite here was doing as well.
Some of the Affinites that Sky and Nathan passed nodded to them as well, silently thanking them for bringing Gayle, their future Queen, to the island. Of course, these people still had no idea what Gayle had become. Or that she had no intention of wearing Aiyana’s crown. She was only here as an ally, to kill a common foe. Then, if she was to be believed, she’d be gone again.
And that was only if everything went exactly according to plan.
“Hello,” came a soft voice. Sky turned his head forward. He found Gayle standing next to a young girl, with bright red hair. Sky recognised the eleven-year-old girl immediately: Lena Amsel, one of the five children of Nadine Amsel. Sky would have been impressed by the boldness of the young girl if she didn’t just to happen to be the daughter of one of the Affinites Gayle had killed.
Sky thought it must be long past the young girl’s bedtime. Perhaps she’d badgered her older sister to let her stay up to see the Queen, and got Nora to agree.
Gayle paused at being addressed. Lena was the first person to utter anything while Gayle walked along the people lining the hallway. Sky looked past Sylvia and found that Nora Amsel, the oldest of the five Amsel children and guardian of her four younger brothers and sisters, was standing right behind Lena. But she wasn’t looking at Gayle, she was looking at Sky.
Sky remembered one of the first conversations he’d ever had with Nora. She’d moved into the castle, from her family home in Berlin, Germany, after her mother had been killed only weeks earlier. Lena had got lost in the castle, and Sky had helped her find Nora out on the courtyard in front of the castle. Sky remembered all too clearly how Nora had admitted never being told what mission her mother had left on. Even though he knew Nora wasn’t meant to know, Sky had told her how her mother had been on a mission to figure out what had happened to Gayle on the night she disappeared. And that she’d been killed by Disciples.
That was still what she believed. What all Affinites who had lost loved ones in those months after Gayle’s supposed death believed. For at least half of them it wasn’t true.
When Sky gave Nora a quick nod, she turned her attention quickly back to Gayle, who had turned towards her younger sister.
“Hello,” Gayle replied kindly.
Lena smiled. “You’re really here,” she said happily.
Gayle nodded. There was something inquisitive about the way she was looking down at the young Affinite. “I am.”
“They said you were gone,” Lena continued.
“Lena,” Nora said under her breath. Then she said something in German that Sky didn’t understand. He assumed it might have been along the lines of leaving Gayle to herself and not taking up any more of her time.
Both Lena and Gayle seemed to ignore the sister’s words. Gayle sank to her knees in front of Lena. “I was.”
“And now you’re back.” Lena beamed. The girl’s German accent was thick through her English, but Sky was still immensely impressed at how easily Lena spoke in a language that wasn’t her own.
“You know, I’ve never actually been here before,” Gayle said. Lena opened her mouth to say something, but Gayle beat her to it. “It’s colder here. I don’t know if I like it.”
That made Lena giggle. Sky looked at Gayle. She wasn’t smiling, but there was a kindness in her eyes that seemed genuine. This was a soft side to Gayle that Sky might have believed she still possessed, but now didn’t quite believe. This might have been who she was before the night she disappeared. But this had to be an act. And any act that Gayle played was a dangerous one.
Sky nudged Nathan. His brother had been studying Gayle, but looked at Sky. Sky tried to ask a question with his eyes. In response, Nathan gave a short nod, and Sky was forced to presume that Gayle didn’t seem to be in a destructive mood. Or else Nathan might have sensed it, and might have tried to move her away from an innocent eleven-year-old girl.
“Will you stay? Even if it’s cold?” Lena asked.
“For now,” Gayle replied.
“Will you wear the crown? I’ve seen it. It’s really cool!”
Sky glanced at Gayle, but yet again, he could read nothing of what she was thinking off of her face.
“Do you know what I was born for?”
Lena frowned and actively thought for a moment. Then she shook her head.
“You know of the Kings?”
Sky glanced at Nora. Lena’s sister was watching the interaction carefully. Sky looked at the people standing around them. They, too, were quietly listening in on the conversation between Gayle Mendosa and the young girl. The expressions Sky saw varied. Some were smiling, truly believing the kind, calm words coming from Gayle’s mouth. Then others looked tense, probably remembering the words in Axel’s broadcast: that Gayle needed time to adjust and that crowding her wouldn’t be good for her transition.
“Have you heard of Astaroth?” Gayle asked Lena.
Lena’s eyes widened, a look of fear in them. She nodded again.
Gayle raised her right hand and tapped on the Mark on the back of her hand with her left index finger. “I was born with this to beat the King who has come after him.”
The black bracelet-like Band around her wrist was the same as the Asters’, except that hers didn’t have a symbol on the inside of her wrist. The Mark of a wolf howling at a moon was what made her different. What made her Queen Aiyana’s reincarnation.
The look of fear in Lena’s eyes quickly turned to that of hope. A tiny smile appeared on her lips.
“Beating her is more important than the crown, do you understand?” Gayle added. The question was spoken gently.
“But it’s really pretty,” she said.
The corner of Gayle’s mouth twitched in amusement. “I’m sure it is.”
Lena frowned for a moment. “But if you don’t wear it… you won’t be Queen.”
“No, I won’t be,” Gayle agreed.
“But they call you Queen.” Lena looked confused.
“They don’t have to. They can just call me by my name. Just like every other normal person on this island.”
Lena giggled at that.
The corner of Gayle’s mouth twitched again. “Why is that funny?”
“You are not normal,” Lena said, still giggling as she spoke.
Gayle frowned, but her eyes still looked playful. It was almost unsettling, how kind and relaxed Gayle could be with a girl like this, compared to how monstrous she could be in battle. Or even how cruel she could be in a simple conversation like the one she’d just had moments before with Axel.
“And why is that?” Gayle asked.
“Normal people don’t have these,” Lena said. Smiling, she reached out and touched one of the black lines on Gayle’s face. The gesture made Sky’s heart stop. Gayle seemed okay with talking to Lena. Being touched could be another thing entirely.
Nora, too, realised this might be going too far. She snatched Lena’s hand back immediately. Lena yelped and looked up at her big sister angrily.
“I’m so sorry,” Nora told Gayle.
But Gayle had no eyes for Nora. She kept looking at Lena. There was a look on her face that Sky could almost decipher as being impressed. Gayle was intrigued by the young girl’s boldness, Sky realised.
“You’re right. These make me different,” Gayle told Lena.
Lena glanced at Nora before looking back at Gayle. “What are they?”
Gayle smiled for a moment. “They are promises.”
Sky looked at Gayle. That was something personal she was revealing. Something Sky had wanted to know from the moment he’d met her. Why she had three lines on her face when they met, but only two when she’d joined them to come to Saluverus, was a question he was still burning to ask. What promise had she fulfilled between when she met the Asters and when she decided to come back with them?
Lena frowned. “Promises of what?” she asked.
But Gayle didn’t answer that question. Instead she asked, “What is your name?”
“Amsel,” Lena added.
Gayle nodded slowly, recognition falling into place. Sky’s shoulders tensed as he realised Gayle now knew for sure who she was talking to. That she was talking to the child of a woman she’d killed. Sky wondered if she expected it from the start, the flaming red hair probably giving Lena and Nora away immediately, but now knew it for certain.
Sky didn’t dare to look at Nora.
“Are you taking good care of your brothers and sisters, Lena? It must be hard, without your mother.”
Sky could feel Nora’s eyes on him immediately after those words. But Sky couldn’t tear his gaze away from Gayle. Where the hell was she going with this?
Sylvia moved to stand next to Gayle, also more on her guard. She leaned down slightly, since Gayle was still crouching down, and whispered, “Perhaps we should keep going.”
But Gayle ignored her. She kept her eyes on Lena, who looked down at her hands and started fiddling with her fingers.
“I miss her,” she admitted. The sadness in her voice broke Sky’s heart.
“I’m sure you do,” Gayle said. “My mother is also dead.”
Lena looked up at that. “Do you miss her?”
Gayle shook her head. “My mother has been dead a long time.”
Sky frowned at this, not quite understanding what Gayle meant with that statement. Especially since her mother had only died the day before.
Gayle reached out and lifted Lena’s chin. “Take good care of yourself and your family, Lena. Will you do that?”
Lena’s eyes turned mischievous for a moment. She then reached her hand up and pretended to draw a line across her face with her index finger, mimicking the lines on Gayle’s. “I promise,” she said.
Gayle smiled at that. “Good. You’re a brave little one, aren’t you?”
Lena grinned at that.
“Never stop being brave,” Gayle told the girl warmly. “All right?”
Lena nodded enthusiastically.
Gayle took one last look at the young girl before getting up out of her crouch and turning towards Sylvia. “We keep going, then?”
Sylvia swallowed and nodded. Gayle turned away and headed further down the hallway. Sylvia started to follow. Sky meant to as well, but Nora reached out and grabbed his arm. Sky glanced at Gayle walking away before turning towards the German Affinite. He realised that Sylvia had stopped following Gayle to listen to what Nora had to say.
Nora’s pale brown eyes bored into his as she asked quietly, “How did she know about my mother?”
For a moment, Sky didn’t know what to say. He cast his eyes down to give himself a second to come up with any answer that wasn’t the truth. Officially, Nora wasn’t even supposed to know that her mother’s death had anything to do with Gayle at all. Sky doubted the Council even knew that he’d revealed that to Nora months ago.
Sky realised that he was finding it very difficult to come up with a lie. Or to lie to Nora. She had the right to know the truth, but Sky didn’t know how the Small Council wanted to handle Gayle’s murderous acts just yet. And he didn’t believe telling her the truth in front of all these other Affinites lining the hall was the best idea.
“She’d learnt of your mother’s death through the Disciples that had killed Nadine,” Sylvia cut in. “Names of killed Affinites travel in Disciple circles. Those Disciples found their justice, you can count on that, Nora.”
Nora didn’t look convinced, but remained calm. She nodded respectfully at the island’s Consul.
Sylvia put a hand on Sky’s shoulder and ushered him along to hallway. As he moved away, though, Sky looked over his shoulder once. He found that Nora’s eyes were still on him, and he could see clearly that she hadn’t believed a word that Sylvia had just said to her. Sky couldn’t blame her. With the information he’d already shared with her, Sylvia’s statement wouldn’t make enough sense to believe.
Sky’s attention snapped forward again as another person addressed Gayle. This time it was a man who looked to be close to Sky’s father’s age. Sky didn’t recognise him. He was tall and skinny, with pale blonde hair and a stubbly beard.
Gayle had already been a few feet further along to where the man stood, but she turned back to face him. She didn’t say anything, just studied the man curiously, waiting for him to say more. Sky and Sylvia caught up with Gayle, but made sure they still kept a respectable distance.
“You are going after Astaroth’s daughter?” the man asked, then added, “I heard you tell the girl.”
Sky tried to guess where the man came from, but his accent wasn’t one Sky recognised. Sylvia glanced up at Sky, clearly nervous about Gayle being addressed again. Sky tried to give her a reassuring smile. It didn’t seem like Gayle minded. Her body was as relaxed as ever. The expression on her face was less sharp, too.
“I am,” Gayle replied simply. The man was at least a foot taller than Gayle, but he looked at her with the utmost respect.
“You are not much older than my daughter,” the man observed.
The look on Gayle’s face softened a little. “Age isn’t a factor. I am the only one who can kill her.”
“And you would do that… to protect us?”
Sky glanced at Gayle. He knew all too well that nothing she did was for anyone but herself, and her own need for revenge. Or justice, he supposed. For everything that Kyra did to her, and took from her.
“I would give my life, if that’s what it takes to kill her,” Gayle said.
Sky’s shoulders tensed. She’d found a way around the question without lying. And only he knew how truthfully she’d spoken. How, she didn’t want to live this life if she didn’t have to. Killing Kyra seemed to be the only reason she still wanted to be alive.
The man and Gayle looked at each other for a while. Then, the man said solemnly, “Respect, my Queen.”
He brought his hand up to his face, and pretended to draw a line diagonally across it, just like Lena Amsel had done before. He then bowed his head.
Gayle waited for the man to raise his head again. She offered him a small nod before turning away from him and heading down further along the hallway.
Sky, Nathan and Sylvia followed. And as they walked, some Affinites politely offered their respect in quiet voices. No one else engaged in a conversation, but a few also used their finger to draw an invisible line across their faces and bow their heads to her.
Gayle continued to take the time to look at every one of the Affinites she passed. She held her head high and carried herself with dignity. Sky watched how some people looked at her body, at the scars so stark on her tanned skin, at her torn ear, and the black lines on her face. He saw how others wiped away a few tears, whether it was from sympathy, shock or gratitude, Sky didn’t know. All he knew was that these people would follow Gayle in a heartbeat. For what she had survived, and for what they thought she was willing to do and sacrifice for them. He wondered if that was ever going to change. Whether people like Nora would ever learn the whole truth of what had happened to their family members in the Amazon Rainforest. Whether the Council was planning to keep those secrets from its people forever, or if they would one day reveal the truth about Gayle.
Sky worried about that day. He knew Gayle didn’t care if the truth came out. As more and more people bowed their heads and drew lines across their faces, Sky wondered if she would be the one to tell them herself.