The Gift Stone: Book One of the Gifted Series

The first book in the Gifted Series, The Gift Stone is a Young Adult, Sci-Fi Fantasy novel that follows Rita, a lowly Temple Girl, and Takano Rynn, the feared ruler of the Galaxies, who form a bond that will forever change their destinies. Five Star Readers Choice Award winner. Read the first thirteen chapters here for free


CHAPTER ONE


I TAKE IN a deep breath of fresh morning air, filled with the scent of oncoming rain. The wet grass and fallen leaves cushion my steps as I run up Green Hill.
The weather is colder than I had expected. It’s not worth getting sick over, even if my running days are fast coming to an end, as the Snow Days draw near. I’ll have to cut my run short today.
I stop at the top of the hill to wipe the sweat off my brow. Out on the horizon the bright reds and golds of the sunrise lie trapped beneath a ceiling of dark clouds.

The sun rises first on Central, as the saying goes.

I look out into the distance, toward Central City; the city where it is always tomorrow.
Temple Mother’s words come to mind. “Hurry up girls,” she’d say. “It’s already tomorrow in Central.”
I smile. If I lived in Central, would I be free to run to my heart’s content?

Fog hovers above the ground in the forest below. I squint, trying to see into the mist.
It’s moving.

Hooded figures emerge from the fog, advancing with military-like precision. I recognize their cloaks.
It’s the dark army of Takano Rynn. They’re marching towards Green Hill. Towards me.
I glance back at the Temple, half in ruins, but still my home. It sits silent in a cloak of darkness beneath the storm clouds. The Sisters will still be sleeping and the Commoners too, in the small village beyond. They’re all observing the Rest Day, all but me.

I turn back to the moving fog. The soldiers appear from the mist, dressed all in black, the colour of Dark Leader Takano Rynn and his followers. Their faces are hidden beneath their hoods, like their leader. He is at the head of the group, his dark form taking shape as he emerges from the fog, taller than the rest. He moves with purpose, eyes glowing beneath his hood.

I shrink back into the shadows of a nearby tree.
What could the most feared leader in the Galaxy possibly want with our forgotten little village, here on the outskirts of all wars, trade, or anything of importance?

The leader’s gift of influence is so strong that it reaches to me through the darkness, drawing me forward, urging me to surrender myself to him, like all who have ever been unfortunate enough to end up in his presence.

“I won’t give in,” I whisper. “I am a Temple Girl, my mind is not easily overthrown. My life is one of self-control.”
I clench my fists, waiting until my strength returns. Then I turn back the way I came and run.


CHAPTER TWO


THE COLD WIND whips my long braid behind me as I run toward the Temple courtyard. I don’t turn to see if the soldiers are behind me. I have to warn the sisters.

I slow to a jog when I reach the fountain. Water used to flow from its center, before the frosts came, and now patches of ice glisten on the cobblestone.

I make my way carefully around the ice and stop at the front gates to catch my breath. The cold air burns down my throat.

There’s no time to go around to the back. I look up at the tall metal bars. The gate is locked but I have to get in.

A prickling sensation starts at the roots of my hair and runs down my spine. I shiver. The familiar feeling energizes me and I know I’m ready.

I run towards the gate and jump, grabbing onto the cold metal bars. The hinges creek and the gate rattles as I hurry to the top, my hands sticking to the frozen metal, pinching my skin each time I pull away.
I ignore the pain and hurry to the top.

The gate wobbles as I lift my leg over the pointed spikes at the top. I balance carefully on one foot, then lift the other over the bars.

My foot slips and I stifle a scream.

“Stars above!” I hiss. My hands lose their grip and I fall towards the pavement. I ready myself for the landing, putting my hands out in front of me.

My fall is cushioned by a heat coming from my hands, pushing back at me from the ground. Or maybe I’m imagining things.

I land safely on my feet, in a crouching position with my arms out to the side.
Not bad, for a Temple Girl.

I smile. Maybe all the hours of physical training I did in secret are actually paying off. But the other girls... What are they going to do when Takano Rynn’s army arrives?

None of them have any real physical strength to defend themselves, let alone the training to fight. They get no exercise at all, outside of daily chores. They wouldn’t fight, even if they could. Violence goes against our Vows.

I swallow hard, my heart racing too fast and making me light headed. I can’t fight the entire army by myself. I have to warn the girls.

I run to the Temple doors and throw them open. They slam against the inside wall, the sound echoing through the sanctuary. The Temple birds scurry off in a flutter of wings, startled by the sudden noise. Inside, the heat is unbearable. Silence fills the sanctuary again.

I hurry down the center aisle, careful not to run. Running in the sanctuary is forbidden.
A light flickers on in Temple Mother’s study.

I stumble up the balcony stairs, the heat slowing me down. When I reach the study I’m out of breath.
“Rita?” Temple Mother stands at the window overlooking the back gardens. She seems surprised to see me. I try to speak but am too out of breath. She frowns then turns her attention to the window. “The gardens are all settled for the season, are they not?”

I shake my head. “No, Mother,” I say, trying to control the burning in my chest. “I wasn’t in the gardens this morning.”

Mother’s brow furrows. “You’ve been running again, haven’t you?”
“There are soldiers. Takano Rynn. They’re coming.”
“What are you saying?” Mother leans forward suddenly, grasping the side of her desk with one hand for support.

“They’re coming, here. I saw him and his army.”
I fall to my knees, tears rushing to my eyes. We are no match for Takano Rynn’s army. He will slaughter us all, as he did to all the Temple Boys years before.

“Did you have a bad dream, child?” Mother asks.
“No…” I blink, suddenly confused. Was it just a vision? I saw the moving fog and the army. I saw Takano Rynn’s glowing eyes. Was it just a dream of some sort?

“Perhaps you should go take more rest,” Temple Mother continues. “You look fevered.”
“I suppose…”
Mother lets out a small gasp and I tense.
She senses it too.
He’s coming.

The fearful expression on Mother’s face makes my heart stop. “Mother?”
Her eyes go wide. “Run, child.”
“But, the others-”
“Don’t let him find you. Run!”

I scramble to my feet and hurry out of the room to the stairs.
Should I warn all the girls first? Or run to the village to wake the people? They won’t have time to flee, with their children and babies.

I stop at the bottom of the stairs. The front doors are still closed. I can’t let the Dark Army come in here.
I have to confront Takano Rynn. He may have strange powers, but he is still just a human, like me. I have my own strengths too. How many times have I fought beasts out in the forest beyond the Green Hills, ones more powerful than men?

My shaking stops. Every one of the beasts have a weakness. Takano Rynn must have a weakness, too.
I glance around the room for a weapon. The brass fireplace poker has a handle and a sharp, pointed end. It isn’t a sword, but it will have to do. If Takano Rynn is bringing his army to the Temple, then he’ll have to go through me first.

“Rita?” Brianne’s timid voice brings me from my thoughts. She’s standing at the entranceway leading to the bed chambers, still in her sleeping robes.

“Are you okay?” She asks, staring at me with wide eyes.
“Go hide,” I say to her. “Hide well.” I hurry to the fireplace and grab the metal poker. “I’m going to fight. And if I don’t return, you must feed the Temple birds for me. Understand?”
“But-”
“Tell the others to hide, too.”

I don’t turn back as I run down the middle aisle of the sanctuary and out the front doors.


CHAPTER THREE


TAKANO RYNN STOPS. He knows I’m near, but he can’t see me.
I grasp the brass poker tight in my hand, ready to lunge it into his heart. The soldiers wait for their leader to continue forward. But he stands still, his cloak flapping in the cold wind. I wait too, silent in the tree above them.

Could they just be passing through? Perhaps they have no interest in our Temple or the village beyond.
I raise my metal rod. I can’t take that chance. If I strike the leader, the rest will scurry, like the mindless drones they are.

Takano Rynn’s hooded head turns left, then right, his hidden eyes searching the trees. The wind picks up again. Now’s my chance to throw the metal poker. The rustling of the trees will mask the sounds of my movements.

Takano Rynn’s head turns in my direction and I freeze. My mind is not easily overthrown.
I pull my arm back, using my other hand to hold onto a sturdy branch, then launch the heavy rod into the air. It zips through the darkness towards its target.

Takano Rynn jumps back, anticipating the unseen object before it makes impact. But he’s not quick enough. The rod misses its target, his heart, and pierces his side instead. He cries out, doubling over in pain.

I hit him!
I hit the feared leader of the Ruling Order.

Soldiers begin to shout, pointing in my direction. I know they can’t see me yet, but they will soon enough. I start to climb. The closer I remain to the soldiers, the less likely they are to find me. They’ll be expecting me to flee. With any luck they’ll run ahead in pursuit and pass by beneath me.

The shouts grow closer and I climb higher. The branches scratch my palms, drawing blood.
I haven’t stopped the soldiers at all, but only made them angrier. They run past below me, their heavy boots trampling the grass in soft thuds that seem to shake the ground itself.

The tree branches sway in a gust of wind and I shut my eyes against the cold, hugging the tree trunk tight.
The storm will be here soon. At least the army is no longer headed for the Temple or the Village. Maybe I have stopped them after all.

Wet dew lands on my face and I open my eyes. Large snowflakes float all around, so light they can’t seem to decide which way is up or down.

The sun is obstructed from view and the hills lie in darkness. I can’t see the soldiers but their shouts move farther away, in the opposite direction of the Temple.

I look back towards the village. Did Temple Mother rouse the sisters? Did Brianne tell the others to hide?
Snowflakes swirl in front of my face, making it hard to see. I blink, searching the small clearing where I hit Takano Rynn. Has anyone remained behind with him?

Then I spot him. He’s standing in the same place he was when I threw the metal poker, his face turned up to me, eyes hidden beneath his hood. My stomach tightens and I grasp the branch in front of me tighter. Can he see me?

The snow gathered around his feet is stained red with the blood dripping from his side. He pulls out a sword. The metal gleams in the dim light of the early morning.

He lifts his free hand towards me and I’m suddenly pulled forward by some unseen power. It rips me from the tree and I lose grip of the branch.

The snowy ground rushes towards me fast. I throw out my hands in front of me.
“Stop!” I yell.

The wind stops and everything becomes silent. I’m suspended for a moment, no longer falling. Even the snowflakes have paused in mid-flight. I look over at Takano Rynn. He’s completely still.
I set one foot gently onto the ground, then the other.
What happened?
Did Takano Rynn make everything stop?

Suddenly the deafening sound of rushing wind returns and everything gets thrown back into motion. Gravity pulls me to my knees and I land hard.

Takano Rynn comes to life, swinging his sword down at me.
I roll away just in time and his sword pierces the ground, inches from my side. My shoulder hits something hard and I cry out.
It’s my metal poker.

I grab it and jump up into standing position. Takano Rynn’s sword comes down at me again and I swing the rod to block the attack.

Sparks fly, lighting up Takano’s eyes. I see the anger and hate in them. I push back against his sword with all my might and he pushes down.

“Coward!” I yell. “Show your face if you will fight me.”

Takano steps back suddenly, lowering his sword. Snowflakes float frantically around his black form. I grip my metal rod tight, ready for an unexpected attack or some kind of trick. My chest heaves with laboured breaths as I wait. The cold, wet ground seeps through the fabric of my gardening pants.

I get up, clutching the metal rod tight and keeping my eyes on Takano. He lifts his hand to his hood and pulls it back to reveal his face.


CHAPTER FOUR


ALL THE ANGER and fear inside of me disappear when I see Takano Rynn’s face.
What had I expected to see? A monster with gnarled features? Surely not an appealing man with dark wavy hair, blue eyes and pale skin. I’d seen other men before, of course, in the village. But none like this, clean and unblemished, like a stone statue; like someone who has never known a day of hard work out in the field.

His jaw clenches and he frowns, as though displeased with my silent reaction.
I lower my fireplace poker and we stand facing one another, the snowflakes drifting between us. They settle onto Takano Rynn’s dark hair. He raises his free hand towards me and an invisible hold seizes me. My throat tightens.

What kind of man relies on magic to fight a weaker opponent? I want to tell him he’s a coward, but I can’t speak. The metal rod slips from my hand and lands with a thud on the grass.

Takano Rynn’s expression changes as his eyes search mine. I’m drawn into their cold, blue pools. I fight against the pull of his influence.

“You know where it is,” he says, his voice emotion-less. I clench my hands, but can do nothing else.
He moves closer. His breath brushes against my neck. “You’re different.”

My heart races. I don’t want to look at him, but now I can’t look away. I shudder and he pulls back, walking around me slowly.

Sure, he can be calm, having an unfair advantage. I’d have killed him by now if he didn’t have his powers.
He takes slow steps, his hands clasped behind his back. Then he stops suddenly, gripping his side and fight-ing back a cough. His hold on me wavers slightly.

Blood drips onto the snow. Blood just like mine, or the sisters, or anyone else who is human. Why am I surprised to see it? He is still a man.

“You caught me off guard,” he says, straightening to his full height again. “There aren’t many who would walk to their own death, rather than flee from it. I didn’t expect an attack from a Temple Girl.”
“Let me go,” I say between clenched teeth.

“Tell me where Gift Stone is.” He moves close again, staring into my eyes. I feel the pull of his influence trying to take control of my thoughts.

The Gift Stone? The old legend which only little Temple Girls believe? That’s why he’s been attacking the defenceless Temples all across the land?

“You have a strong mind,” he says.
“Stop!”
He doesn’t stop but freely searches my thoughts, like a physician’s fingers examining a body.
“How sweet,” he says. “You are worried about your sisters.” He pauses. “Oh, I see. They’re not your real sisters, are they? You’re all alone in this world.”

I don’t respond.
“Where is the Gift Stone?” he asks again, his voice calm but more impatient now.
He brings his sword up to my throat. “Is it hidden in this Temple?”
“There is no Gift Stone,” I whisper.

“Of course there is. Tell me where they’re hiding it or I will kill every last one of the Temple Girls until I find it.” He moves the sword closer to my throat. “You told the young one, Brianne was it? To go hide it.”
“No,” I swallow hard. “I didn’t tell her to hide any-thing. I told her to go hide.”

A humourless smile crosses Takano Rynn’s face.
“She can try to hide. But I will find her.”
“You will not harm her,” I hiss at him, my anger giving me strength. A heat rushes through me, starting at the roots of my hair and pooling in my fingertips. I push back against Takano’s invasion of my mind, forcing my way into his thoughts, the way he entered mine.

Our minds connect and I feel him try to resist. I catch glimpses of his thoughts. He truly is looking for the Gift Stone, which he’s been told is hidden in one of the Temple’s. He believes that if it’s found by someone else, it can be used against him and he may be defeated by its power.

The pain from his wound seeps into me as well, along with his anger, determination and hate. Behind the more prominent emotions is a curiosity about me. My ability to resist him confuses him. He thinks I’ve been in contact with the Gift Stone and it’s made me strong.

“It does not exist,” I say. “It’s only a myth, a hope of those desperate to see your evil reign come to an end.” I break free of our connection, but not before sensing his vulnerability. He’s afraid I might have harnessed the power of the Gift Stone and could defeat him right here and now. It’s just enough doubt for me to have an advantage over him.

I grab his sword out of his hand in one swift movement.
“Rita!” he cries out. “Stop!”

The surprise of hearing Takano Rynn call out my name catches me off guard and I hesitate. He reaches for his sword and snap back to attention, swinging the sword at him with all my strength. A clash of metal hitting metal rings through the air as I hit his arm. He’s wearing some kind of armour. His chest must be covered with metal too, beneath his cloak.

I step back. I’ll never defeat him if he’s covered in armour. Anger rises inside of me.
“You’re nothing but a coward!” I yell, swinging the sword again. “A coward who killed all the Temple Boys because you were afraid.” I swing again, no longer in control of my anger. “Afraid one of them would rise up against you.” I stop to look him in the eyes. “You’re even afraid of me.”

Takano’s eyes grow dark. He lunges at me with a loud cry. I duck and roll away, losing my hold on the sword. Suddenly he’s towering over me, gripping my wrists and pinning me down to the ground.
“You’re strong,” he says, breathing heavily. I struggle to break free but he’s stronger, even with his wound. “You’re like me,” he says, sounding surprised.
I look right into his eyes. “I will never be like you.”
“Join me.”

His eyes draw me in again and his thoughts enter mine once more. We can be powerful together.
“Never!” I roll him off of me and reach for the sword again, but I’m not fast enough. He grabs it first and swings it down at me.

I roll out of the way but the sword clips my shoulder. I cry out and kick upwards into Takano’s side, where his wound is still oozing blood. He grunts and falls to the ground, dropping the sword. I snatch it up and jump onto my feet.

Takano coughs, crouched down before me, gasping for breath. I lift the sword high, my heart racing. He stops struggling for air and collapses to the ground, becoming completely still. My arms tremble as I hold the sword tight, ready to strike.
I can kill him. Now’s my chance.

I look down at his unmoving body. Takano Rynn, the mighty and powerful leader, now vulnerable and helpless before me. Will he die of the wound I gave him? Is he already dead?

I lower the sword. It wasn’t just anger I saw inside of him when our thoughts merged, there was curiosity and a desire, not just for the Gift Stone, but for companionship.

He wants to find someone Gifted, like him. But that person isn’t me.
I sigh. I am not like you, Takano Rynn.

The shouts of the soldiers in the distance sound through the trees. I look up but the fog is too thick to see anything. They’re heading back, looking for their leader. I won’t be able to fight them all.
There’s no more time.

I drop the sword and run.


CHAPTER FIVE


THE GEARS OF the Above Train grate loudly as it speeds down the old metal track. I look out the messy windows at the buildings below. Some reach up as high as the tracks, which weave between the skyscrapers.

The people far below are like tiny, colourful bugs, moving about. I smile at the thought of being lost in the masses down there. This will be my home now. Murderers aren’t allowed to step foot on Temple grounds. Out here I can fade into obscurity, like a drop in the ocean. Nobody knows where Takano Rynn has disappeared to. Do they know it was me who opened his side and left him to die that snowy morning?

No, how would they know? We were alone during that battle. Such a strange twist of fate. After living a quiet life as an orphan at the Temple, I am now on the run for killing the leader of the Ruling Order.
This isn’t how I imagined my life would turn out. I thought I may get kicked out of the Temple one day, for my love of running, but not for killing a man.

Takano Rynn’s lifeless body lying in the snow flashes through my mind. I grip the bar in front of me tighter and take in a shaky breath of the stuffy, recycled air.
Maybe there will be peace now that the leader of the Ruling Order is gone. Maybe what I did wasn’t all bad.

Join me, he’d said to me.
I shake my head to dispel the image of his eyes from my mind. Even if I had the Gift Stone and the power to lead the people in peace, would I have the courage to do it? The way Takano Rynn’s brother Lord Morlin once did? Well, he tried to, until Takano killed him too.

I glance around at the locals on the train with me. They look bored, resigned to their fate of riding this old metal beast off to wherever they are going.

No one smiles. They are all listening to their devices with their earphones in. I have no destination, but they know exactly what they are doing, getting on and off, switching trains at the right stops, at the right times. No one flinches when the breaks squeal or the wheels crunch and bump over the tracks. I flinch every time.

On and off they go, swallowed up into the city and replaced again by new passengers with new frowns on their faces.

Brianne’s smile comes to mind and I blink back tears. I’ll never see her again. I didn’t even say goodbye or give anyone an explanation before I took off in the night.

A blur of leaves replaces the metal buildings as we soar above trees now. They remind me of home, but here the trees are protected by large electric fences and no one can touch them.

Once we pass the trees we climb up again, nearing the heart of Central City. We pass apartments and houses crammed together in skinny tall blocks. There are no large family homes here with yards and fences, like back at the village.

The train comes to an abrupt stop, its gears complaining loudly. People barely have enough time to get off before the train starts up again, rushing to make the next station.

A guy about my age crams in with the newcomers and stands next to me. He reaches over my shoulder to grab onto the metal bar that I’m holding onto.

I turn slightly to look at him, trying not to be obvious. He has dark skin and a pleasant face. He smiles briefly at me then looks out the windows. His well-worn brown jacket smells like the outdoors.

His arm touches my shoulder and I flinch, but he doesn’t seem to notice. At the Temple and in the Village we never had a reason to get so close. Such nearness was reserved for young children and their mothers, or newlyweds. Not for Temple Girls. But I wasn’t always a Temple Girl. I had a mother and a father.

I blink back tears. I know my parents are out there somewhere. Maybe even out here in Central, like I used to pretend they were when I was little.
Now I’m actually here.
A familiar hope stirs inside of me. I most likely won’t run into my parents at the train station, but one day I’ll find them.

I grip the metal bar tighter and look out over the sea of people. They sway to and fro, left and right, then right and left. A few glance in my direction and I look away. Do they know of Takano Rynn’s death yet? Or who killed him?

I pull the hood of my Temple cloak down farther over my face and tuck the loose strands of my blonde hair out of sight.

A girl with short white-blonde hair and markings on her skin watches me with a smile. Her markings are in the image of a sea creature that runs down her neck and onto her shoulder. It must have hurt to be marked so deep that the image never sheds from the skin.

“Where did you get your markings?” I ask, over the noise of the train. She doesn’t respond.
The train breaks to another screeching halt and I fall against the boy with the brown jacket.

“Sorry,” I say quickly but he doesn’t seem to even notice.
“I’m not from here,” the markings girl says to me.

The train speeds up and the noise starts again.
“I can’t wait to get back to my little robot,” she continues. “I hate vacations.”
“What are vacations?” I ask.

She turns to me then, looking down at my Temple clothes. “You’ve never been on vacation?”
I open my mouth to answer, then close it. I may very well have been on a vacation, or in one and not even know it, since I don’t know what a vacation is.
If I can’t answer truthfully then I shouldn’t speak at all. That’s the Temple teaching.

“Why are you in Central?” the markings girl asks.
“I’m going to live here.”
She nods, like it’s a logical answer.
“I’ve got nothing to get back home to,” I add, “like you do.” I stop. Why did I say that?
“You mean my robot?”
“I guess.”
“You can get something in Central when you live there, something you can look forward to returning to at night.”

“I need a place to return to first.”
The dark-skinned boy speaks, startling me. He is standing so close that I’d forgotten he was still there.
“The things you want to get back home to don’t usually cost anything,” he says. He glances over at the white haired girl.
“I didn’t steal her,” she says to him. “She cost me a lot.”
He smiles but doesn’t respond.
“Steal who?” I ask, only now realizing that these two know each other.
“Beeps, my robot,” the girl says. “Parrin here doesn’t think robots have real emotions.”

Parrin shakes his head but doesn’t respond.
“What province are you from?” the markings girl asks me.
“I’m from the Northern Provinces.” I adjust my Temple clothes. The many layers were designed for the cold North not for Lower Central. Yet I didn’t expect it to be this warm. I brought nothing else with me, not even a travelling case, just the clothes I had on when I left. Nothing I used at the Temple was mine to take.
“Central sucks the life out of you,” the boy named Parrin says. “Too many people and not enough air.”
I think back on the open spaces in the far away province where my village is. All that emptiness would sometimes suffocate me too.

“I don’t mind sharing air,” I say. Parrin smiles again, a small grin that I would have missed if I wasn’t paying attention, but the effort is not wasted on me.

I feel a twinge of hope. The people here aren’t monsters, like Temple Mother made us believe. They’re outcasts perhaps, on their own in a diverse city. But they’re still human.

My shoulders relax and I glance up at the scrolling information on the screen at the front of the train car. The words “Downtown Central – Main” are displayed.
We’re nearing the heart of Central. It’s my stop.

Parrin’s arm rests on my shoulder and I don’t want to move away. His nearness is comforting. I don’t have to get off at Downtown Central; I could stop anywhere.

“We’re getting off at the next stop,” the markings girl says, as though reading my thoughts.
“I’ll get off there too,” I say, quickly.

Parrin and the white haired girl exchange a glance and my cheeks heat up. Are they a couple and don’t want me to tag along?

The train comes to a stop and Parrin grabs hold of my arm, pulling me quickly to the doors. My gasp of surprise goes unheard in the commotion of people trying to get off the train while others are getting on at the same time. We rush out the doors seconds before they close again.

I knew that things would be different in Central, but I’m not sure I’m ready for this.
People press in all around me. It’s hard to breathe. There are too many people. I’ve only just arrived here and I’ve already made significant physical contact with another person. I pull my arm out of Parrin’s grasp as soon as we’re clear of the doors. It really shouldn’t matter anyway. I’m not a Temple Girl anymore.
And yet, it still matters.


CHAPTER SIX


THE CROWD OF people push against us and we’re moved forward. Tunnels lead to different levels and out to the streets of Central. The citizens disperse, in a hurry to wherever they’re going. Soon we’re left standing at the entrance of one of the tunnels. I wipe the sweat from my forehead.

“You should take off your layers of Temple clothes,” Parrin says, “before we go out onto the streets. It’s even warmer out there.”

His friend crosses her arms. “I thought they were some kind of farmer clothes,” she says. “My name’s Star, by the way.”
I smile. “I like your name. I’m Rita.”
“Cute,” Star says.
“How do you know they’re Temple robes?” I ask Parrin.
He shrugs. “I used to be a Temple Boy.” He starts walking again.

“What?” I hurry to keep up with his long strides as he heads down a tunnel, its walls lined with public service announcements about the Ruling Order.

How could Parrin have been a Temple Boy? There aren’t any left. Takano killed every last one of them.
“But there are no Temple Boys anymore,” I say.
Could he be Gifted? I would be able to tell though wouldn’t I? The way I could feel Takano’s presence even at a distance; his power of influence from his Gift?

I stop walking and pull my hood off quickly before I think about it too much. Air washes over my head and neck and I sigh. Parrin’s eyes go wide.

“What?” I say, immediately defensive. But I know what. It’s my blonde hair. It always surprises people who haven’t seen it before. Sometimes it’s so blonde that it seems to glow, under certain lighting, or in moonlight. Or so I’ve been told.

“Wow,” Star says. “You won’t last in Lower Central with long hair like that. It’s way too hot here.” She looks at me for a moment, as though assessing me. “You could get a lot of money for that hair. The Upper Citizens pay a nice price for real hair, especially that colour.”
“She can’t cut it,” Parrin says. “It’s holy.”

I twist my braid into a knot behind my head. Star’s right about the heat and Parrin’s right about my hair, that a Temple Girl’s hair is considered Holy.
“Aren’t you going to become unclean by being here?” Parrin asks me.
I frown, wanting to ask him the same thing. But he said he used to be a Temple Boy, not that he is one any-more.

“I’m sure she’s left all that Temple stuff behind and that’s why she’s here,” Star says. “Let’s go. Beeps must be worried about me by now.”
“Where is everyone?” I ask, suddenly missing the hustle and bustle of the train.
I look around the abandoned train station. Everyone is gone.

“No one can stay in the tunnels once they get off the train, not since the Ruling Order took over. If you hang around too long in here, they arrest you.”
“Oh.”
“But Takano Rynn is rumoured to be dead now,” Parrin says. “He’s disappeared. Maybe things will change, finally.”
My stomach tightens and I don’t respond.

“I don’t think he’s really dead.” Star plays with one of her piercings in her eyebrow. “If he was, then there would be chaos in the streets and rioting. But nothing seems to have changed.”
“It’s only been a few days,” I shrug.
“You heard about Takano Rynn’s disappearance?” Parrin asks me. “Out at the Temple? It’s not even news here yet.”
I shrug and avoid looking at him.
“He’s not dead,” Star says. “I can sense it.”
“Even if he was dead, Dukath would find some other evil lord to take Takano’s place.” Parrin crosses his arms and looks down the length of the tunnel.

“Dukath?” I ask.
“He’s just a myth.” Star waves her hand at Parrin.
“He’s real.” Parrin frowns. “He’s the one that even Takano Rynn bows down to.”
“Well, then the Opposition-”
Parrin bumps against Star’s shoulder and she stops talking. I wait for her to continue but she doesn’t.

“What about the Opposition?” I ask.
“Don’t say that word too loudly here,” she says, then turns to Parrin. “Are we ready to go? I need to get to the base.”

Parrin nods. “But first we should help Rita be a little less conspicuous.” Parrin takes hold of the top button on my robe then begins to unwind the string that’s wrapped around seven times one way, then seven times the other way. I expect him to keep going one way and not realize that he’s actually winding the string up again, after the seventh turn. It’s a common mistake for even the Temple Girls when they lose count, but Parrin stops at seven and starts the other way.

“How do you know about the buttons?” I ask.
“What’s with all the string wrapped around those buttons?” Star says, watching us.
“It’s a tradition, and it carries meaning,” Parrin answers. He starts on the next button and I push his hands away.
“I can do it myself.”

I undo the rest of the buttons as fast as I can, then unwrap the thick cloth belt around my waist. Parrin starts helping again, holding the belt for me as I take off my outer robe. It falls to the ground and he snatches it up, frowning.

“Temple robes shouldn’t be thrown onto the ground,” he says, pushing the garment back into my arms.
“I’ve got a friend who’d be interested in buying that,” Star adds.

“So do I.” Parrin digs into his pocket and pulls out some exchange currency. I’m not too familiar with the currency but it looks like a large amount. He hands it to me. “Here. For the robe and belt.”
I take the delicate papers from him. They feel rough to touch, as though they’ve exchanged many hands before reaching mine. “Thank you.”

Star watches Parrin with interest. “That’s a lot of currency, just for a robe.”
Parrin shrugs. “She needs a place to stay.”

We start walking again and I feel too light without my robe on, even though I’m carrying it in my arms. As though reading my thoughts, Parrin takes the robe from me.
“I’ll carry it, since I bought it,” he says.

As we near the end of the station tunnel, the noise and heat return. It’s even warmer than on the train. The simple maid’s dress I’m now wearing is made of a light fabric but it still reaches to the toes of my worn leather boots and covers me up to my neck, with a white decorative collar.

I take a deep breath, trying to get more air, following Parrin and Star out into the street. The city smog is potent and burns down my throat. I squint at the blaring lights and colours of the shopfronts lining the streets.

Everything is flashy, demanding attention. Fake trees made of metal and plastic light up one side of the street. The shops on that side are made to look like buildings that they are not; castles, farmhouses and one even built in the image of a Temple, but only on the outside. The sign above says ‘Dee’s Discount Markings.’

We move through the crowd and I lose sight of Parrin and Star. Then Star’s bright white hair stands out in the crowd and I find them again. I could take Parrin’s hand, or Star’s, to keep us from getting separated, but the thought makes me too nervous.

We keep walking, in a hurry. Why am I following them? Parrin glances back occasionally to see if I’m still with them. For a moment I think I see him take Star’s hand. But I can’t be sure.

We head down a darker alley moving away from the bright lighting and crowds. Groups of people stand quietly in dark corners, watching us as we pass. Parrin ignores them. They look poor but their clothes are still flashy, only more worn.

Star is ahead of us now. She stops at an almost hidden door, beneath a flight of metal stairs, and opens it. The sound of laughter and smell of smoke waft out. I head for the door but Parrin puts his arm out in front of me to stop me.

“Let her go. We’ll wait here,” he says.
I nod and look up at the side of the building. A maze of ladders and metal stairs zig zag between the apartment doors high above, going up and up as far as the eye can see.

I close my eyes to stop a sudden wave of dizziness. How could anyone use those stairs and ladders without getting nauseous from the height?

Parrin remains silent as we wait, as though lost in thought. A loud bang echoes down the dimly lit alley and I jump, moving closer to Parrin.
“Just a ladder being let down,” he explains.

“Oh.” I cross my arms and step back, my cheeks heating up. Am I really going to be okay in Central, if I’m already jumping at every noise? Where will I even spend the night tonight?

The door Star disappeared through opens again and she steps out with a smile on her face. At her feet is a little robot, reaching to her knees. The small, dust covered robot wobbles on its wheels, moving fast like an excited toddler.

“You’d better keep her safe while I’m on this mission,” Star says to Parrin.
The little robot comes to a stop beside Star but doesn’t stop fast enough and bumps into her legs. Then it tries to correct itself and rolls forward, bumping into Parrin’s legs. He crouches down and pats her head.
“Okay Beeps, are you going to behave yourself?”
Beeps responds with an assortment of beeping sounds. I smile. It’s obvious where she gets her name from.
“And you’re going to make me breakfast every morning, right?” Parrin asks her.
Beeps’ little noises sound like a ‘no’ to me and Parrin laughs at her reply.

“Okay, I’m out,” Star announces. Parrin stands and gives her a friendly handshake. She grasps his hand tight and pulls him into a quick hug.
“Stay safe,” Parrin says to her. “Don’t fly that plane into a black hole.”
“Can’t make any promises,” she says, letting go of his hand. She gives me a salute, then walks away down the dimly lit alley.

Parrin and I watch her in silence until she disappears around the corner.
“Where’s she going?” I say, to break the silence. Beeps responds but I don’t understand her answer.
“Come on,” Parrin says, heading down the alley in the opposite direction Star went. “It’s not a good idea to stay here too long.”

I have no reason to follow Parrin anymore. He gave me money and I can get food and a place to stay now. Beeps stops to look back at me when I don’t follow. Then Parrin stops too.
“Are you coming?” he calls over his shoulder.

I hesitate for a moment, then hurry after them.


CHAPTER SEVEN


“SO WHERE ARE we going?” I ask Parrin. A merchant cart almost runs into us as we round the corner to enter back onto the street. I grab Parrin’s arm to hold him back before he gets hit.

“Thanks,” he says. Beeps squeals as the cart catches one of her wheels and flings her into a group of scantily clad girls. They giggle and keep walking.

“There’s a hotel on the second level that should be safe for you to stay at, for a few days anyway, until you find something more permanent.” Parrin looks up. “The Lower Citizens can’t go on the second level, except for merchants with clearance.”

“Then who uses the second level?”
“Upper Citizens visiting from Outer Central and staying overnight. The third and fourth levels are for higher citizens that work in the city but don’t want to be part of Lower Central.”

We continue down the street and I fight the urge to stop and look at everything. The shops are full of flashy trinkets that catch the eye. I want to stop and see what they are. Toys? Devices? Decorations? I spot a shelf full of books with colourful covers made of embroidered cloth. Brianne would love one of these. I look back at Parrin and see that he’s gone.

“Parrin?” I yell.

A group of rough looking citizens gathered near a smoke shop stop talking and look over at me. One smiles, showing a row of stained teeth.

“Hey Blondie. Is that your real hair?” the tallest one asks. He starts to walk in my direction and the others follow.

“No,” I call back in reply, then pick up the pace. Beeps speeds off suddenly and I run after her. People step aside and make room for her as she zooms ahead. I keep running too, not wanting to lose sight of her.

We stop at the base of a flight of white stairs which lead up and up to a metal gate above. There’s a guard stationed at the front of the gate and I spot Parrin’s brown jacket. He’s speaking with the guard and they seem to be in a heated discussion.

Parrin looks down at me, as though sensing that I’ve arrived. I start to head up the stairs but he shakes his head, as thought he doesn’t want me to go up. I stop and Beeps bumps against my leg.

“Oh, you can’t go up?” I lean down to pick her up. Her body is heavy and the flight of stairs is high. “I think Parrin wants us to wait for him down here anyway,” I say to the little robot.

I look up again and see that both Parrin and the guard are gone. “Great,” I mumble, sitting down on a step.
Beeps says something that by now I can tell is a question of some sort, which I’m guessing is related to Parrin’s sudden disappearance.

“I don’t know Beeps, maybe Parrin just has to talk to someone to get me clearance for the second level or something.”

I pull Beeps close to my legs, feeling protective of her now that we’re on our own. The Lower Citizens stay clear of the stairs and I feel safer knowing that there are guards nearby watching this entrance to the second level.

“We’ll just have to wait I guess.” I pat Beep’s head and give her a smile. “Maybe you can teach me a few words in robot.”
Beeps doesn’t respond and her hesitation makes me laugh.
“I’m smarter than I look,” I tell her.

She starts beeping some words and I try to guess what they are, but between the two of us we’re so hopeless at understanding each other that it makes me laugh even more. I clutch my side. It feels good to laugh again. It’s the first time in a while that I’ve laughed.

Beeps tries to project something onto the ground for me to look at but the lights near the stairs are too bright and I can’t make out the words. I don’t notice the time pass as we continue trying to understand each other, until suddenly the street becomes dark.

“What’s going on?” I look down the road and see that the street lamps have turned off. Only a few store signs are lit up now, leaving shadows in every corner.

Beeps says something but I don’t understand. I look around. All the people are gone and we’re alone. Is this some kind of night time curfew?

A nearby shadow turns into a man with broad shoulders, walking out from an alley. He walks towards me and I stand. Another man is behind him, his eyes also on me. They’re wearing black and for a second I think they’re part of Takano Rynn’s army. But they don’t have the army patch on the right arm.

Beeps starts to wheel around in circles and I glance back to the top of the stairs. The lights have been shut off at the gates too and I can’t tell if anyone is up there.
Should I run up and look for a guard?

I look back to the approaching men. They’re a lot closer now. If I go up the stairs I’ll be trapped coming back down.
“Come on Beeps.”

I start to run and Beeps’ wheels make a high zing as she speeds past me. I glance over my shoulders and see that the men are running now too. Fortunately their large build makes them slower runners.

The city smog burns my eyes and throat. I hear music and life nearby, sounding like it’s just around the next corner. I hear the footsteps of the men behind us but I don’t look back, focusing on my running the way I would when running in the forest back home.

We round the corner at the end of the long street and bright lights blind me for a second. I head for some movement near a busy club not too far off. My eyes adjust to the brightness of the street, which is apparently not under curfew like the other ones we were at.

The stores and buildings in this area of town are colourful, reminding me of Summer Festival. Two Ruling Order guards walk down the opposite side of the street, slowing their stride when they see me. They hold large weapons made of some lightweight plastic. I look away, not wanting to seem concerned that they’re watching me.

The large men that were chasing us are gone, but I can’t shake the uneasy feeling of being exposed and vulnerable.

My chest burns from my run and I try to calm my heart by controlling my breathing. I head towards the club where there’s a line-up of loud people. As I get closer my heart rate slows down and my shoulders relax.

At the end of the street I can see the road open up to a brightly lit shopping center area where there is still a lot of activity. I pass by the rowdy Lower Centrals waiting outside the doors of the club, dressed in glittery clothes and painted elaborately to enhance their facial features. Loud music booms from inside the building.

“Beeps?” I look around but don’t see Star’s robot.
Before I start to panic I spot her, swerving between the legs of a group of people. I sigh. I could have lost her. I need to pay closer attention. Parrin would have never forgiven me and neither would Star. I wouldn’t have forgiven myself. I can tell she’s more than just a simple robot. But where did Parrin go? Why did he leave us on those steps for so long and then never return? Did something happen?

Beeps lets out a series of high pitched beeps and I kneel down to pat her little head.
“Sorry for running off so fast,” I tell her. “We’ll be fine if we stick together. Okay?”
She responds with her robot ‘okay’, which I am now familiar with, and I get up to start walking again.
My braid weighs heavy down my back, making me sweaty. People stop talking to stare as we pass by. Star’s words suddenly come to mind, you won’t last in Lower Central with long hair like that.

I reach for my hood then remember that I sold my cloak to Parrin. My stomach grumbles loudly and I pick up the pace.

I’m not at the Temple anymore, where the meals are prepared for me every day on time and where I have a safe place to sleep. I will need to find my own food and shelter.

I look down to make sure Beeps is still with me. She gives me a questioning beep and I smile at her.
“We’ll be just fine,” I say to her.


CHAPTER EIGHT


THE SMELL OF grilled meat draws me to a messy looking restaurant. Beeps rolls along silently beside me. I keep my eye on her as we move closer to the restaurant. It would be so much easier if I had a rope to tie around her to keep her connected to me.

My stomach growls and I walk faster. The windows of the restaurant are covered with posters advertising local events.

I stop at the front doors and peer between two posters to look inside. All the tables are occupied and the cheerful voices of the diners drifts out onto the street. I sigh. I’m too tired from all the travelling and running for a busy place like this. But at least here, we’ll be off the streets.

Beeps makes her questioning noise.
“Stay close,” I say. “We’re going in.”

I open the doors and the loud conversation and delicious smells of grilled meat hit me all at once.
A small, rough looking man stands at the front counter. He narrows his eyes at me.
“No Upper Levels here,” he says.
“I’m not an Upper Level,” I reply. “I just need to eat.”

He doesn’t respond but turns and walks away. Beeps makes her questioning noise again and before I can answer, the man reappears at a short gate to the left of the counter. “Come with me,” he says, waving a hand at us.

We follow him through the busy restaurant to the back. The noise and laughter is so different from meal times at the Temple. How can they even eat in so much disorder and confusion?

“You can sit on the floor there.” The man we are following points to a row of cushions along the wall where no one else is sitting. I dig my hand into my pocket and pull out one of the bills that Parrin gave me.

The man’s eyes go wide. “We have private rooms too,” he says quickly, reaching for the bill.
“I’m also looking for a place to live.” I hold the money away from him.
The man glances at Beeps and then at me.

“I won’t ask where you got that money, but for a little more I can give you a good meal and a place for the night.” He licks his lips, his eyes darting around the room then back at me. “We have nice rooms, for long term living, at the back of the restaurant, privileged renters only.”
“How much?”
“Too much for you.” He smiles, showing missing teeth. “You won’t get rent for less than a small fortune anywhere in the city. And you can’t rent unless you’re a Registered Citizen.”
“I am,” I lie.

“I doubt that.” He laughs, then coughs, clearing his throat before he speaks again. “There are a lot of night crawlers on the streets looking for their next victim to steal from once all the shops close. They’ll cut your head off for that golden mane of yours.” He looks me up and down and I shiver. “I’ll tell you what,” he continues. “For that bill I’ll give you food and a stay for one night. And for the length of your hair, I’ll give you the room to live in for four season’s time.”

Beeps makes a high pitched noise but I ignore her.
“It’s a deal,” I say to the man. “I’ll cut my hair tomorrow. Right now I need food and a place to sleep.”
The man smiles wide and starts to walk away, waving at us to follow him. We walk through a doorway, with beads hanging on strings as a barrier, and down a small hallway.

I guess I really will cut my hair then. I wrap my arms around myself, getting a chill despite the heat in the place. I would have had to cut my hair eventually anyway.

We stop at a locked door and our host pulls out a wad of keys. He unlocks the door and walks in. We follow him down a long hallway that has doors on either side. These must be the doors to the residence he was talking about.

The hall is dimly lit but the rooms seem safe here, protected by the locked door at the end of the hall and by the busy restaurant on the other side. It’s a lot quieter here and my shoulders relax.

Beeps’ wheels crunch over the dirt on the floor as we make our way to the other end of the hall. We stop in front of a door with two thin bars of iron forged into a number ‘12’, hammered onto the front.

“Here we are,” the man says. “You’ll have to eat in the restaurant if you want a meal. No food allowed in the rooms.”
I nod. “Thank you. I think we’ll eat first then return to the room.”

The man frowns but doesn’t reply. I take out the bill again from my pocket and hand it to him. He snatches it out of my hand.

“I’ll tell the waitress to bring you a meal at the back of the restaurant,” he says then hurries away before I can ask what kind of meal I’ll be getting.


CHAPTER NINE


BEEPS ROLLS INTO my leg again as I try to unlock our apartment door. She’s been beeping the same sounds over and over, trying to get my attention. I’m pretty sure I know what she’s saying. She wants to help me with the lock, but I’ve been ignoring her.

I sigh and step away from the door.
“Okay fine Beeps, but you don’t even have hands.” I offer her the key and she shakes her tiny head.

A little compartment on her body opens up and a small retractable arm with a grip at the end extends up towards the lock. The clasping mechanism is replaced by a long, sharp object and she inserts it into the lock. The door opens.

“I don’t think that’s how we’re supposed to be opening the door to our apartment. But good job!”
She gives a reply that I assume is ‘you’re welcome.’

I pull the door open the rest of the way and start to step in. My knees hit the side of a bed before I can even go inside. I reach in and flip on the light switch. A dim yellow glow floods the room, a room which is just one large bed.

“Oh…” I lean in to look around the corner. The edges of the bed touch all four walls. Up near the ceiling a long shelf runs along the length of the room and a phone sits on the wall beside another door. Hopefully the door leads to a washroom.

“Well Beeps, looks like our new home is a bit small.” I reach down to pick her up. She lets out a little beep as I lift her. “What in the world are you made out of?” I say, hefting her onto the bed with a loud grunt.
Beeps squeals, bouncing onto the mattress and roll-ing on her side, then onto her face. I laugh and she lets out a series of sounds that I’m quite certain are not-so-nice comments.
“Sorry Beeps, but you’d laugh too if you saw how funny you looked.”

A loud bang from down the hall startles me, but I can’t see far enough down the long corridor to see what’s caused it. I climb up onto the bed and quickly close the door behind me, then lock it.

“Ahhh…” I let out a long sigh and lie onto my back. Finally, I’m off my feet. I’ve been on my feet since I walked all the way to the train station from the Temple. I even stood while eating my meal at the restaurant, not wanting to sit on the brown and yellow soiled cushions on the floor. The food was worth it, though.

My eyelids grow heavy and I almost fall into an instant sleep. I blink and turn my head to look at Beeps. She’s wobbling in place, having trouble staying upright on the soft bed. I smile. “You alright?”
There’s a short beep in response.
“I don’t know how much time we’re going to be spending together, or how I’m going to find Parrin again,” I say.

Beeps’ head drops and she makes a soft sound. I sit up. “No, no, I don’t mean he won’t be back, or that Star won’t see you again. Parrin is smart and he’ll find us. I just mean that you and I, we’re going to be a family for a little while.”

Beeps lifts her head and lets out a high pitched, happy sounding sequence of beeps.
“And,” I continue. “If we’re going to be a team, I really am going to need to learn your language, okay?”
Beeps nods.
“Good, now let’s start with some basics.”

Beeps responds and I recognize the sound as a ‘yes.’
“I know that means ‘yes’.”
She repeats the sound.
“Good.” I smile. “And I’m pretty sure I know what your ‘no’ beeping sound is too.” I lay back down and look up at the low ceiling. “What other words should we start with?”

Beeps rolls onto her back too and another compartment opens up in her metal body. A small lens comes out and lights up the room in a bright blue. I blink, trying to adjust my eyes to the brightness of the projection. Beeps projects some commonly used words and phrases onto the ceiling tiles. One lights up bright blue and Beeps lets out a sequence of beeps.
“Are those the beeps that go with that phrase?”
“Yes,” Beeps says.
I smile. “Okay. Can I ask you to give me the sounds for some words that I want to know?”
“Yes.”
“Okay, thanks.”

Beeps responds, then the words ‘you’re welcome’ light up above us.
“I knew that one,” I say with a smile. “And I’ve only known you for like an hour. Are you proud of me?”
“Yes,” Beeps says. “You’re smarter than Parrin.” She projects the words onto the ceiling and I laugh.
“Well, I do have a gift for understanding people.” My eyelids grow heavy again. “I’m glad you’re here, Beeps.”
“Thanks,” she says.

“I never had any friends back at the Temple, not really. I mean, Brianne…” A lump forms in my throat but I push through the pain and continue. “She was nice to me. But even she was scared of me. All the girls were. I don’t know why…” I stop for a moment. Maybe I do know why they were scared of me. Maybe they saw that I was capable of murder, even back then, and that’s why none of them wanted to be friends with me.

Beeps waits silently for me to continue.
“Whenever I felt lonely I would go into my garden and visit all my plants and vegetables. They didn’t say much but they were still alive, you know?”
Beeps responds and I open my eyes and look up at the ceiling to see what she’s said. “You had plants that could talk?”
I smile. “No. But in a way they communicated with me. I knew when they were happy because they grew fast and healthy.” I roll onto my side and yawn. “Can we continue robot language class in the morning? I’m so tired.”
“Yes,” Beeps responds and a second later I fall to sleep.


CHAPTER TEN


I RACE THROUGH the back alley, running faster than I ever have. With no robes or heavy garments to drag me down I can run more freely. My new clothes cover less than my Temple undergarments did. Yet I don’t feel exposed, just free.

The tiny silver top I bought for myself earlier is too small to cover my stomach and the small, orange shorts are quite tight, but they make me feel protected somehow, like I’m wearing close fitting armour.

The world seems bigger now that I no longer wear my head covering, the sky open wide above me. I can see higher and farther.

I run from the city streets all the way to the industrial area on the outskirts of Central. There are less people as I get farther away from the city, but more vehicle traffic. I stop at an intersection where the streetlight turns red and take a moment to stretch my legs.

Large carts carrying merchandise from the factories roll past on the road. My fanciful dreams of how I imagined Central to be seem so far-fetched, now that I’m actually here. But it still feels good to know I made it.

My apartment is small and I’ve been eating unhealthy at the restaurant. But I did finally buy clothes to help me fit in with the Citizens. Beeps and I are finally settling into our new home and I’ll need to find a way to make money soon if we want to remain here.

I look out over the soot covered factories in the distance. I need to find work today. Parrin’s money is starting to run out. The factories will hire anyone, even unregistered Citizens like me, or so I’ve been told. It’s not a place I’d want to work a long time, but it’s a start.

I glance back at the second and third tiers of the city center behind me. They reach up high into a sunshine that is barred from my view. The fresh air and sun are reserved for the Upper Citizens, their bridges and high buildings blocking out the sun for the rest of the city below. Do they have clean air and places to run up there?

A vehicle honks it’s horn, startling me. The drivers of the large merchandise carts stare at me as they stop for the traffic lights, which have now changed colour. I ignore the hollers from the drivers and run across the intersection.

What will the reactions be of the factory workers when I go there looking for a job? I look out into the reddish-brown cloud of pollution ahead. I’m not exactly dressed for the occasion, either. I was thinking only of the jog here when I chose my outfit this morning, not the job interview.

I stop running as I near a gate to one of the factories. My hair sticks to my face and I peel the strands away, moving my braid onto one shoulder to let the back of my neck breathe. I can’t go in there looking like this. My hair will get too much attention and probably ruin my chances of getting a job, or worse, get me killed. And even if it doesn’t, the heat in the factories will be too much for long hair.

I turn back. I’ll have to deal with my hair first. I’ve been avoiding it all week, promising Mr. Jardan, our land-lord, that I’ll get it cut soon as payment for our living quarters.

I start to jog towards the city again. At least I got a chance to run. But I miss the fresh morning air in the North and seeing the sunrise over the hills.

Once I’m back in the city I stop at the first general shop I see. The windows are covered in ash from the nearby factories so I can’t see much of what’s inside.

A bell rings when I pull open the heavy door. The shop owner stops polishing a glass bowl in his hand and glances up at me.
“I’ve already paid my taxes,” he says, his expression turning angry.
I pause for a moment, confused. “I was hoping to buy scissors.”
The shopkeeper’s shoulders relax. “I have scissors.”

He comes out from behind the counter and goes directly to a shelf of random items, easily locating a pair of scissors in all the disarray. He gives me a suspicious look. “What’s someone like you doing in Lower Central?”

I push my long braid over my shoulder in an attempt to hide it behind me. “I used to be a Temple Girl, but I’m not anymore.” The words sting and I want to take them back. Am I not a Temple Girl anymore? It wasn’t exactly my choice to leave.

“I can pay you for your hair,” the shopkeeper says.
“No.” I pull some coins out of my pocket. “I just want the scissors, thank you.”

I grab the scissors from him and drop the coins on the counter.
“A Temple Girl can’t cut her own hair,” he says.
I frown. He knows the legends too?
“For a small fee,” the Shopkeeper continues, “I will have my sister cut it for you. Come.” He walks down the aisle towards the back of the shop.

I hesitate. The Temple rules no longer apply to me now that I’ve left, do they? I’ll just cut my hair myself. But what if there’s some truth to the legends and I end up killing myself or something by cutting my own hair? I might as well get it over with now.

I hurry after the shopkeeper, anxious suddenly to get back to the restaurant to check on Beeps. I’ve already been away too long.

I step into the back area of the shop. The rooms are more organized here than at the front of the shop and the space looks like living quarters.

An earthy incense tickles my nose and I stop a sneeze before it comes out. I look around the room. The furniture looks like those of Upper Citizens, only worn and old. The reflection off some shiny objects nearby catches my attention. I walk over to have a closer look.

Glass ornaments line the shelf. I pick up a tiny glass sea creature. There are other sky gods made of glass, with tiny crowns and various land creatures of old, gone extinct long ago.

“This way,” the shopkeeper says.
I set the glass creature down carefully and follow him through another curtain to a lounge area with soft carpet. The room has colourful lighting coming from a large lamp in the shape of a sea creature, with long tentacles reaching to the ground.

“Do you like octopi?”
The voice startles me and I jump. A lady with short blue-grey hair looks at me from a seat in the far corner of the room.
“I don’t know what they are,” I say.
“They’re sea creatures.” She gets up, watching me from behind wire-rimmed glasses. Her clothes are made of a light material that floats as she moves, reaching all the way to the ground. “You’re a Temple Girl.”
“I was.”
“You still are.”

“I left.” I shift from one foot to the other, not want-ing to talk about my upbringing with a stranger. Maybe everyone will stop assuming I’m a Temple Girl once I cut my hair.

“You never truly leave,” the older lady says. She gets up and walks closer to me. I resist the urge to back away. Her eyes are almost white as she studies me. “You’ve met Takano Rynn,” she says.

My face flushes and I don’t respond. Is she a Seer? My heart begins to race and I step back. Does she know I killed Takano Rynn?
“You have his power,” she whispers.

I shake my head. “No.” The scissors slip from my fingers and drop silently onto the carpet. “I don’t have powers like that.”
“You have the Gift,” the lady continues. I clench my fists tight. Seer or not, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I pick up the scissors and glance over at the shopkeeper. His expression is unreadable.
“Only one person in the Galaxy has the Gift,” I say softly.

“Not only one,” the Seeing Lady says. She steps back, giving me some room to breathe. “There are others.”
I frown. There can’t be others. The Gifted Lords of ages past are long gone now. If there were others still alive Takano Rynn would have killed them, too, like he did his own brother.

The Seeing Lady lets out an unexpected gasp, making me jump.
“Get out! Get out!” she yells. I scurry back, looking behind me to check if she’s talking to someone else that may have walked in the room.
“Excuse me?”
“Get out!” she yells.

I bump into a desk and almost knock over the octopus lamp. The store owner wrings his fingers, seeming unsure of what to do.

I turn and run from the room, still grasping the scissors in my hand.
“And don’t ever come back here again!” the lady yells after me.

Tears obscure my vision as I run out. She must have seen what I did, what I’m capable of. I came here to get away from what I’d done, but there’s no escaping it. They’ll hunt me down eventually and take me to prison.

No, I can’t live my life worrying about that. I will be okay. They don’t know where I live. I’ll cut my hair and colour it like the locals do, even if I have to rub ash into it to make it dark and dull. They won’t find me.
I run into a crowd of people and push past them, ignoring their angry protests. I have to get back to Beeps. And I have to cut my hair. Maybe I’ll get markings like Star and call myself by another name.
I keep running until I’m back at the restaurant and the room I now call home.


CHAPTER ELEVEN


“WHAT’S WRONG?” BEEPS asks. At least I think that’s what she’s asking.
I slam the door behind me and throw myself down onto the bed.
“I killed him, Beeps.” I wipe the tears from my eyes and turn onto my side, pulling my knees up to my chest. “I caught him off guard and cut his side open with a metal rod.” I swallow hard, taking a moment to catch my breath before continuing.
“Then we fought. I was so scared of him, Beeps, scared of what he would do to the Sisters, but… He asked me to join him. Takano Rynn, the evil leader of the Ruling Order, asked me to join him. He wasn’t going to kill me, he wanted-” I stop, not able to continue that sentence. “Maybe his army had no intentions of killing the Sisters. They were looking for the Gift Stone. But I killed him, anyway.” My chest aches and I shut my eyes tight.

Beeps doesn’t say anything, seeming to know that I just need to talk.
“I dream about his eyes,” I say after a moment. “He looks intently at me. Through me. He reads my mind.”
I take a long staggered breath, then continue. “He reaches out to me with his hand, as he reads my thoughts and searches through my memories. He sees everything, even personal things.”

I roll onto my back, remembering the rest of the dream. Takano Rynn reaches out to me and I reach for him, too. I look into his thoughts, the way he looks into mine. I see his fears, his memories, hopes and insecurities. I see he is afraid of me, of the power he sees inside of me. Afraid I could surpass him. Him, the fearless Takano Rynn, ruler of the Galaxies.

Then, I became afraid too; of being all powerful and of the responsibilities that having such Powers would mean. A galaxy of people’s lives in my hands. The wars that would need to be fought.
Suddenly our fingers touch and a power ignites between us, lighting up the sky, and at that moment I know we are more powerful together than anything or anyone in all of space and time. Even Dukath, the one whom Takano bows down to, according to Parrin.
I shudder at the thought.

“Is that why you wake up screaming?” Beeps asks, pulling me from my thoughts. She projects her words onto the ceiling so I can read them.
“What? I do?” I sigh. “It’s only a dream. I have no powers. I’m just a Temple Girl.” I cover my face with my arm. “I mean, I’m just a General Citizen.”
“A human General Citizen,” Beeps replies.
“Yes.” I reach over and pat Beeps on the head. “But sometimes I wish I was a Robot, like you.”
“Do your parents know that you left the Temple?”

I stare at the words on the ceiling for a moment.
“Temple Girls don’t have parents.”
“They don’t?” Beeps asks.
“Well, some do, but most of the Temple Girls are orphans, others are given to the Temple by their parents.”
“Are you an orphan?”
I frown at the projected words. “I am, but my parents didn’t want to leave me behind. And I’m going to find them someday.”
“I can help you look for them.”

I turn onto my side and smile at Beeps. “Thanks for being my friend, Beeps.”
She responds and I don’t have to look up to know that she said ‘you’re welcome.’


CHAPTER TWELVE


THE MARKET SQUARE is a welcome sight, with all its noise and activity. Festive lights of all colours remind me of High Season at the Village. It was the only time of year when decorations were allowed at the Temple.

With everything that has happened this past week, I’m ready for a distraction. Now that I’ve become more used to the heat, the warm evenings are more of a comfort than a frustration. Back home it never got this hot, even in the summer. But I’d rather the heat, than the cold which would only make me miss home. My heart aches whenever I think of the sisters. I left without even an explanation or a goodbye.

I understand now why the people in Central love distractions so much. They help you forget about other things.

I head for the crowds and the lights. My hair weighs heavy on my back, still uncut. I couldn’t go through with it. Even the people of Central seem to respect and know the traditions of the Temple. It seems wrong just to ignore them. Beeps tried to help me cut my hair but she couldn’t hold the scissors.

I walk past booths selling interesting things which I long to stop and look at, but already people are silently staring at me, stopping in mid-conversation, pulling small children closer to them as though I may be a threat. I try to ignore them and slow down when I see a booth selling fabrics across the road. I could get a light scarf to cover my hair. Then I’d be able to shop without drawing too much attention to myself.
Beeps rolls along at my side. “You play with your hair a lot when you’re nervous,” she says. The words aren’t exact but I recognize the word ‘hair’ and ‘upset.’ A single beep of a certain frequency means she is talking about herself, two of the same frequency means she is referring to me in the sentence.

I drop my hand from my braid. “I guess I do fidget with my hair.”
Beeps stops to pick up a rock with one of her retract-able arms.
“Stay close,” I say to Beeps.
“Why?” she beeps back.
“It’s crowded here.”

We start to walk again, heading to the booths on the other side where the fabrics are.
“Fresh berries!” A man yells in our direction. He smiles at me, holding out a basket of berries; his teeth are lined with gold. Business must be good in this market.
I give him a nod, then continue on.

I check to make sure that my metal rod is still secure on my back. It was such a useful weapon for fighting Takano Rynn that I bought another one at a shop near the restaurant.

“300 Capital bills for the robot,” a large, bearded man says. He steps in front of us, blocking our path.
“She’s not for sale.” I move around him but he blocks me again. I look up at him, the ends of my hair tingling as my body prepares for a fight.
“It’s a generous offer.” He crosses his arms. “I usually don’t pay for what I want.”

“Beeps, go find a scarf for me at the next booth while I talk to this gentleman.” I don’t take my eyes off the large man as I speak to Beeps. “I’ve already told you,” I say to him. “The robot is not for sale.”
“I didn’t ask if he was.” The man looks over my shoulder and nods to someone behind me.
“Rita?” Beeps calls. “There are others.”

I turn just as two men cover Beeps with a sack and lift her up. I pull out my metal poker and jump towards them, kicking one in the head and swinging my rod at the other. They drop the sack and Beeps squeals from the inside.

The bearded man lunges at me with both arms out. I thrust my rod into his belly and his eyes clench tight as he doubles over in pain.

Beeps’ cries become more frantic but I can’t get to her. The other two men are back on their feet again. They grab the sack and start running away.

“Stop!” I drop the poker and throw out my hand. The men fly into the air, then crash into a large wagon full of crates. I gasp. Did I do that?
The sack slams into the crates, too, and then rolls onto the floor.
Beeps!

The men scramble to their feet and glance back at me with terrified expressions on their faces. They scurry off and the market stills, an eerie silence filling the square as everyone looks towards me. I turn. No, they’re not look-ing at me, but behind me.

A man wearing a grey cloak is standing there, facing the men that have run off. His arm is still outstretched to the crates where they were tossed before scurrying. I look around at the quiet faces watching him. A wide circle has formed around this man with powers, but the crowd is keeping their distance. He removes his hood and I gasp. His light brown hair, with streaks of grey in it seems to glow with the energy that still sizzles at his fingertips.

“Lord Morlin?” I blink. It can’t be. Takano’s older brother, not quite as tall as Takano or as frightening, yet intimidating just the same. It’s like seeing a ghost. His image is painted on a large mural in the sanctuary at the Temple. But he’s supposed to be dead, killed by Takano.
He walks towards me and I take a step back.

“Please, don’t announce my presence,” he says when he reaches me.
I look over his shoulder at the inquisitive crowd. They are watching curiously but already starting to return to their shopping. Don’t they recognize him? I look back to Lord Morlin. He looks older than the painted image in the Temple, yet still the same. “You’re… alive?”

His aged face becomes youthful for a moment as he smiles. “Yes, I believe I am.”
I wrap my arms around my stomach, trying cover the area where my low rise shorts and high top have left my belly exposed, in the presence of such a renowned noble. I should be wearing my Temple robes at a moment like this. “But I thought Takano Rynn killed you.”

“He tried.” Morlin’s voice is dry and scratchy as though he’s in need of water after a long journey. He watches me curiously and I force myself not to shrink under his gaze. He folds his hands into the long sleeves of his cloak and nods in a direction away from the market. “Come. We need to go.”

“Me?” I glance back to the crates where the men dropped the sack with Beeps in it. The sack moves wildly as she struggles to get out of it. “I’ll be right back.” I run over to free her. She beeps wildly, rolling around in a circle.

“Beeps, it’s okay. They’re gone.” I throw the sack off of her. She rolls into my arms. “We need to go with Lord Morlin,” I say softly, looking around the market square. The Citizens are still keeping their distance from Lord Morlin as he stands in the same place I left him.
“Takano’s brother?” Beeps says. I let her go.
“Yes. Come on, let’s go.”


CHAPTER THIRTEEN


“YOU CAN’T USE your powers, Rita,” Lord Morlin says to me. He stops walking, now that we’ve gone quite a distance from the market.

“My powers?” I say, rubbing dust from my eyes. Why does everyone think I have powers? I don’t. For a second I almost believed I did, but it was Lord Morlin who saved us back there. If it weren’t for him those men would have taken Beeps. “Thank you for saving us back there, my lord.”

Lord Morlin smiles and shakes his head. “You can call me Morlin. No one has called me lord since I was teaching in the Temple for Boys, before those Temples were all destroyed.”

I nod. We are alone now and Lord Morlin watches me with interest, making me nervous. He is nothing like Takano Rynn. There is no hate in his eyes. I would have expected a tormented soul like Takano’s, but instead he is full of a different kind of energy, one that is full of life, not fuelled by anger. Even in person he seems unreal, like a character from a fairy-tale from my childhood.

Tears swell in my eyes and I blink them away. Temple Mother always spoke of Lord Morlin with such reverence. She should be the one here to meet him, not me.
“How…” I rub my eyes again, unable to put my words into sentences.
“It’s important that you don’t use your powers,” Lord Morlin repeats.
“I wouldn’t if you asked me not to,” I nod. “But I don’t have powers.” There’s so much I want to ask him. How did he escape from his evil brother and why did he stay away for so long? Where was he? Why did he suddenly return now? Is it because…
My chest tightens. Is it because I killed Takano?

“Did you come to avenge his death?” I say softly, not able to look Lord Morlin in the eyes. I won’t run away from what I’ve done this time. I deserve to face the brother of the man I murdered. Beeps lets out a tiny sound at my feet.
“His death?” Lord Morlin says. “I have not been made aware of any death.”
“I…” the words get stuck in my throat. How do you tell someone you killed their brother and know where the body lies in the forest?

“I’ve heard the rumours.” He sighs, looking out towards the dust filled horizon on the outskirts of Central. “You did not kill him. I would have known if you had. He is still alive and hiding, gathering his strength. But to what purpose, I don’t know. No one knows where he is.” Lord Morlin looks back at me. “He’ll find you if you use your powers. You must not use them.”

“But-” I stop. Now is not the time to convince a Gifted Lord that I’m not actually Gifted. My mind spins with all this new information. If Takano is alive then that means I didn’t kill him. It’s a bit frightening that he’s still out there, but it’s a relief to know I’m not a killer. A weight lifts off my shoulders. He’s not dead. I didn’t kill anyone.

“Dukath has discovered where you are and is sending Ruling Order soldiers to retrieve you,” Lord Morlin says. A chill runs through me, despite the warm air between the buildings.

“Dukath?” I frown. So the all-powerful entity that even Takano fears is not just a myth after all. But if Takano is still alive, wouldn’t he be the one coming after me, and not Dukath?

“You must come with me,” Lord Morlin continues, “to Antineon. The Ruling Order doesn’t know of that planet and you can train with me, like you should have done from the start.”

My mind races. Is it because I almost brought Takano Rynn to his last breath, that everyone thinks I have Gift powers. Is that why he wants me to train with him? Would he believe that I’m just good at hitting a target and hiding, and that’s how I got the better of his brother? Yet I can understand why everyone wants to believe I’m a rare Gifted Temple Girl, even though the Gift is passed down to males not the females. The soldiers must have spread the rumour that I went up against Takano Rynn in battle and defeated him.
I look at Lord Morlin. Does he want to try and join his Gift powers with mine? The way Takano Rynn wanted to with me?

“I want to stay here,” I say. “In Central. I can train here-”
“It’s too dangerous now.”
“I won’t use my powers here, I promise.” I hear the desperation in my own voice. I just started my life here. I have my own place, in a city where I can disappear among the crowds. I have Beeps and Parrin, once he returns.
“Takano Rynn is looking for you,” Lord Morlin says.
“What does he want from me?” I swallow hard. “Revenge?”
Lord Morlin’s eyes search mine. “No, Rita. He wants your Gift.”

Suddenly my dream comes back to me. Takano Rynn reaching out his hand, our fingers touching, the power igniting between us. I see his eyes, curious about me, not intrusive or angry but inviting, beckoning me to join with him. His thoughts are hopeful, like he’s found a missing part of himself.

“No!” I cry out, feeling that familiar pull to him, the one I fought against in the forest, the one that tempts me to give in to him.
“The Gift in you is stronger than his powers of influence, Rita. You won’t give in to it. You’re stronger than that.” Lord Morlin sets a hand on my shoulder.

I’m not, I want to say. I’m not strong at all.
“I can teach you to use your Gift,” he continues.

"No..." Even if I did have the Gift I wouldn’t use it. Temple Mother told us that the Lords rarely used their Gift, because use of it eventually leads to evil. Such power corrupts the mind and heart.
I hold back a gasp as I remember Takano’s words. “You’re like me.”

I shake my head to dispel the image of his eyes, which I can never escape, both day and night.
“Don’t be afraid, Rita,” Lord Morlin says. “You can learn to control the Gift.”

I don’t respond. It isn’t the power of the Gift that I fear, it’s Takano’s desire for me to join him. He was vulnerable for a moment and he was… interested in me, impressed by me. For that second I saw him, not the evil ruler, but just... him. Lonely like me. Strong but insecure. I clench my fists. If I ever see him again I may not be able to resist this time.

“You’re right.” I wrap my arms around myself. “If Dukath knows where I am then maybe he’s sent Takano Rynn to get me.”
“My brother no longer follows Dukath’s orders. He’s gone Rogue,” Lord Morlin says.

“Rogue?”
“Yes. He isn’t with the Ruling Order anymore. He wants something he believes can make him even more powerful.”
“I don’t understand. He has all the power. What could he possibly want?”

“He wants you.”


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