“Welcome to the House of Malakh.” A woman with dark skin and in a dress of expensive material bowed to Siren, keeping her head faced forward.
“Is Alexandre here?” Siren began to say.
Col interrupted, “Shalla! This is Lilllich’s group.”
“Ah!” The woman became tense all over, and accidentally leapt off the ground. “Come this way, come inside quickly. Lilllich will be so happy to see you. She is out receiving someone else. You mustn’t disturb Alexandre, for she is badly injured and must recover.”
“Injured?” Siren said.
“Yes, injured. Now come! Hurry!” Shalla hurried them along with a sweeping hand gesture. “Ai, with everyone else gone, I’ve had to do everything on my own. Col, you must show them to the guest’s hall. I am cooking!”
“Oh, good. I think we’re all a little beat.”
“Enough talk, go!”
Shalla ran a little too fast out of the foyer and then down the hall to the right. Siren gazed around the space, lagging behind as Col led them the other way, to the left. This large foyer, with an opulent sand-coloured rug. What sort of animal did the materials come from? Or was it perhaps a plant like cotton? While the outer wall was brick, inside it was lined with the more common metal, although they seemed to be copper in colour. He didn’t know enough about alloys to be sure of the material. Hanging in front were sheets of fabric, almost like free-floating wallpaper, or perhaps like the tapestries that covered cool castle walls. The ceiling too seemed a little too low. Siren shook his head and caught up with the group before he lost them.
“So,” He heard Kent say, “when do we meet the man himself, the Lussa prince?”
“Oh,” Col said, “I don’t really know. It should be soon, right? Here on the right.” He pointed to a double doorway, opening it as he spoke. The hall was even nicer than the rest of the building so far. This room, clearly, was outfitted to impress. Just how rich was Lilllich, Siren wondered. The Royal guard must pay well.
Annissette returned to the room. Alexandre was lying face up, blinking.
“Do you think you’re well enough to stand? Do you need, um, the pan?”
“No. Give me a couple of days…”
“I was just asking because your friends are downstairs.”
Alexandre was standing next to Annissette in the short time it took the young girl to blink. Then, almost as suddenly, she grabbed on to the girl.
“Do you need a hand?”
“No, I’m fine.” Alexandre let go and made her balance. “Show me where to go.”
They walked out of the room and then slowly down the stairs. The first floor seemed to have higher-quality coverings. Alexandre shuddered involuntarily, but caught herself. She could smell food. It smelled like Djeb food, like rice. They passed by the front door and eventually reached the guest hall.
“You might need a house coat if you are cold. Here’s the room.” Annissette opened both doors for her.
When Alexandre entered, everyone stood, out of respect. She stopped.
“Did I get a promotion while I was dying?”
“We thought you were…the prince or maybe Lilllich,” Col said, “or something. Both doors opened…”
Alexandre, though a little hurt, joined them.
“My my Alexandre, what are you wearing?” Senica said.
Alex looked down. Part of her midriff was exposed, showing some of her bandages, and the pants were so small they revealed her knees. The outfit was tight, but managed to fit well.
“These are not my clothes. My clothes are stained with blood.”
“Oh.” Senica shut her mouth.
“What happened to you and Chloe?” Siren asked, “The last time we saw you was…when we left you to fight the one-hundred-percent Riley.”
“Well, we got through though them thanks to Chloe’s…wartime powers.”
Siren’s eyes widened. He knew exactly what that meant. “She went nuclear?”
“No, not quite that. Just the eyes. I don’t really understand it myself. My God in heaven, there is so little I understand.”
Annissette returned. Their supper was halfway done, but she didn’t want to interrupt. She sat down next to Alexandre on a backless loveseat.
“It is simple,” Kent said. For the first time, he spoke in a voice fitting of his Royal title. He spoke with the power and authority of the Third Prince of the Solune. “Though the art is mostly forgotten, since we’ve spent so much time in peace, the ability to use laszor eyes is no more impressive than the ability to run a marathon. No, not everyone can do it, but nearly everyone can learn how. Especially the Solune, and the Riley since they have mixed so much with Solune over the centuries. Really, only a Metch has troubles with laszors.”
Alexandre cocked her head. “So I could do what Chloe Rhye did?”
“During your escape this morning? Possibly. What she did during the war? I doubt even my father, a centuries-old veteran at the ability, could replicate what she did at that time. Probably Chloe herself doesn’t know how it happened. I wish I was in the kingdom at the time to see it myself. I only read my mother’s report.”
“I wasn’t in the war, but I saw the nova all the way in the capital,” Alexandre said.
“You should have seen it from Hannibal,” Astore said. “Absurd. Some think that part of it was her laszor abilities triggering off of ground minerals. Like an explosion that hits more powder and sets off a chain reaction. Chloe went off, emitting laszors not only from the usual orifices, the eyes and even the mouth, but also from each of the wounds she had accumulated during the battle. Then, after a disturbingly long period of time, after her ripping though the flesh of giants, the ground erupted.”
“Chloe Rhye ended that war almost single-handedly,” Kent said. “The reports say she routed the remaining army, which was around half of them.”
“Single-handedly, according to the King’s announcement. That was last year. I was just getting into the academy, I remember when he spoke to the city about the victory, and about the subsequent full opening of the walls,” Alexandre said.
“Well, mother never did like to blow our heads up. I’m not surprised that Chloe did all that. But I doubt she could do it again. It was an accident, is what mother—what Gwenhime said. And Chloe didn’t do anything of the sort during our fight with the Riley, right?”
“What didn’t I do?” Chloe peered in through the open doors. Lilllich strode in in front of her.
“I am glad to see that everyone else made it here safely,” Lilllich said.
“I agree—but were you all talking about me?” Chloe asked.
“Yes,” said Kent.
The dish of the night was a very simple plate of what seemed to be rice with a side of meat and sauce. Lilllich’s dining room was outfitted with a long table. Longer, in fact, than the Solune royal dining table. So opulent was Lilllich’s home, and so much more like an inn or apartment than an actual house, that Chloe Rhye had to ask about it.
“Ah, how did you acquire such an estate? And, are these people working for you?” She tactfully avoided using the term servant.
“Oh, yes. These are my…” Lilllich trailed off. Apart from Lilllich and Chloe’s group, there were three young people seated at the long iron table. “Annissette is the youngest, though her name is the most difficult to spell. She is thirteen. A year older, we have Col, who you already know. Then, is Marshalla, who is nineteen. I have one more, Roccck, but he has moved on, thankfully. He is twenty-onr, and I pressured him into pursuing a career in law.”
Chloe whispered to Alexandre, “She talks about them like they are her children.”
Alexandre said, “I asked Annie. They are not exactly.”
Annissette said, “What Lilllich is so tactfully avoiding is our legal relation to her. She is our benevolent caretaker, and we are, according to the letter of the law, her slaves.”
“An unfortunate translation of an ancient legal term,” Lilllich waved her hand. “Eat!”
The meal was fairly awkward after that for everyone except the women of Chloe’s party. Senica was the one who spoke first.
“Do you mean slave under the ancient definition?** I think Djeb law has preserved a similar term. I talked to a reporter about it during one of my research projects.”
“Yes. One can remain a slave,” Annissette said.
“Annissette! Do not make things sound worse than they are.”
“…the same way that one is family for life. To be a slave, is to be grafted into a family.”
“That’s exactly what the journalist told me. In the old language of the Djeb constitution, the words “slave” and the word “adoptee” are the same word,” Senica said.
“You guys have strange dinner conversation,” Siren said.
“I think it is interesting,” Chloe said, “so you are Lilllich’s children. This isn’t some sort of orphanage then?”
“Not quite,” Lilllich said. “I have been finding exposed children for years now. I try to find them homes, ideally through their own extended family. If it takes too long, I adopt them myself. I am wealthy, but I am no parent. They are trained and sent off to be contributing members of society.”
“What do you mean by exposed?” Alexandre said.
“That is also an antiquated term,” Chloe replied, “it essentially means abandoned by their parents, usually during infancy, out in the open. Exposed to the outside world and left either to die or be found. I always thought it only happened in stories. It is what one does to avoid responsibility, and on top of that, the responsibility of knowing…”
“And this giant building? Col said you were a soldier, and then a guard captain, and then a first rank Royal guard,” Alexandre said.
Alexandre could see that after such a long and trying day, a day that began all the way back in the Solune Kingdom, Lilllich was losing her zeal. She decided to strike.
“You’ve lived more than one lifetime.”
“Why,” Lilllich smiled, baring unusually sharp teeth, “yes. In fact, I have. And, from what the Solune King has told me, so has both he and your good Chloe Rhye.”
Chloe gagged on her food and then tried to act like she hadn’t. Alexandre caught herself. She had forgotten about Chloe. Hadn’t I asked her about her age before? She said…she didn’t try to hide it, she told me that she would tell me later. Is now later? Should I really be asking about this now? Before she could decide what to do next, Alexandre felt a wave of seasickness wash over her.