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Keeper of the Lost Cities, Page 21

Shannon Messenger

  “Green! Can you find Zelenie?”

  She pointed to an isolated star to the left. “There.”

  He bottled the deep green glow. “This’ll be the first time I get it right. I usually just pick a random star and try to bluff.”

  Sophie laughed and dug her list from her pocket. Her stars were much harder to find, and she had to really push her memory, but eventually she had bottles of silver, gold, black, white, copper, and green light.

  “Any idea what the pattern is?” Dex asked

  “I’m not sure.” Something felt familiar, a shadow of an idea, not formed enough to make sense. She poured through her memories, scrounging for the clue she was missing. The pieces clicked. “Elementine.”

  “What’s the pattern?”

  “I don’t know, but I know Elementine is right.” She grabbed the stellarscope.

  “Are you sure? I’ve never heard of it before.”

  “I think I would know better than you. Besides, why would I make that up?”

  “Good point.”

  She followed strange trails through the stars as the minutes ticked by. “I know it’s there.”

  She focused on a dark space and fiddled with the dials.

  “I don’t see anything,” Dex told her.

  “I think it’s just really far away.”

  More turning and adjusting. Still nothing. Dex was getting fidgety when she finally said, “There!” and flipped the latch.

  The stellarscope hummed, then turned white hot. Sophie yelped, dropping the scope.

  “What happened?”

  “Ow, ow, ow!” She waved her hands, trying to cool the burning, but the pain made her eyes water.

  “Let me see.” Dex took a jar of moonlight from his bag and grabbed her wrists, shining the light on them. “Whoa. Are you okay?”

  She wanted to be brave, but her eyes teared when she saw the purple welts on her palms.

  “What should I do?” Dex asked, sounding frantic.

  She tried to think through the pain. She could go home, but she wasn’t sure how Grady and Edaline could help. What she really needed was a doctor.

  Her face fell as she realized what she had to do. “Can you get my Imparter from my satchel?” She’d been carrying it with her ever since the cheating disaster.

  Dex dug through her bag until he found the silver square. “Who are we calling?”

  She sighed. “Elwin.”


  NOW YOU’RE CALLING ME AT HOME AND dragging me out of bed? Maybe it was better when you were afraid of me,” Elwin teased. His smile faded when she showed him the blackish-purple blisters on her hands. “How did you do that?”

  “I was just trying to bottle the light from Elementine.”

  “Elementine?” He pulled a small pot from his satchel and spread a thick green salve over the burns. “Never heard of it.”

  “I told you it wasn’t real,” Dex said.

  “But I found it,” she insisted as Elwin sprinkled purple powder on top of the salve. “The scope got really hot when I flipped the latch, and it burned me.”

  Elwin wrapped her hands with thick blue cloth. “I’ve never heard of that happening. It’s always an adventure with you, Sophie—I’ll give you that.”

  The annoying part was she couldn’t argue. Why did weird things keep happening to her?

  “Is that helping the pain?” Elwin asked.

  “Yes. Thanks.”

  “Good.” He poured a bottle of Youth over the cloth, soaking it through. “Did you bottle the light?”

  “I don’t know.” In all the chaos she hadn’t bothered to look.

  “I’ll check it.” Dex ran over to the scope, which was still where Sophie had dropped it. “There’s something in it, but it’s weird.”

  “Don’t touch it,” Elwin ordered. “Last thing I need is another patient.”

  Sophie hung her head. “I’m sorry I woke you.”

  “Don’t worry about it. Gives me a good story to tell tomorrow.”

  She sighed. Marella and Keefe were going to have a field day with this.

  Elwin unwrapped her hands. The blisters were gone, but the skin was red and raw. He stroked his chin. “That should’ve worked better.”

  “It doesn’t hurt anymore.”

  “That’s because the salve numbs you. I’m going to have to make a stronger balm. Wait right here.”

  She nodded miserably. Where would she go?

  Elwin glittered away, and Dex plopped beside her.

  “You don’t have to wait with me.”

  “Like I would leave you in the middle of nowhere at night, injured. What kind of friend do you think I am?”

  “But you must be cold.”

  “Nope. I can regulate my body temperature. See?” He touched her cheek, and she was surprised at how warm his skin was. “Want me to teach you how to do it tomorrow?”

  “I can’t. I’m going to Fitz and Biana’s.”

  “Ugh. Another day at the palace. Be sure to wear your crown.”

  “Are you ever going to stop that?”

  “Doesn’t look like it.”

  “They’re my friends. I wish you could be a little nicer about it.”

  “Hey, I hold a lot back.”

  She laughed. “Somehow I doubt that.”

  He ripped a handful of grass and tossed it away. “You just like seeing Wonderboy. Please don’t tell me you have some stupid crush on him.”

  “Of course not.” She could feel her cheeks blush and was glad once again for the darkness.

  Dex ripped more grass by the roots. “Then what is it? Why do you like him?”

  “He’s the one who found me.” As soon as the words left her mouth, she realized her slip.

  Dex stiffened. “That’s a story you haven’t told me.”

  “I know.” She tried not to talk about her past—it brought up too many questions she didn’t have the answers to.

  “There’s a lot you don’t tell me, isn’t there? Like your session in the Level Four wing. It’s not remedial studies, is it?” He waited for her to deny it.

  She didn’t.

  “What do you really do there?”

  “I can’t tell you.”

  “Does Wonderboy know?”

  She sighed. “Yes.”

  He was quiet for a long time, mutilating more innocent blades of grass. “Well, that stinks.”

  “I didn’t tell him—if that’s what you’re thinking. He’s just . . . involved . . . so he gets to know certain things.”

  They sat in silence, destroying the grass and waiting for the other to speak. Dex finally sighed. “I’m sorry. I’m being a jerk.”

  “I’m sorry too. I hate keeping secrets from you. You’re my best friend.”

  His head snapped up. “I’m your best friend?”

  She shrugged, looking away. “If you want to be.”

  “Are you kidding? Of course!”

  She smiled. “Do you think you could do me a favor, then?”

  “Sure. Anything.”

  “Could you try to keep the Fitz bashing to a minimum?”

  “Ugh. Anything but that.”

  “Please, Dex?”

  He glowered at the ground. “Fine. But I’m only doing it for you—I still won’t like him.”

  She smiled at his stubbornness. “Thank you. That means a lot.”

  Light flashed in front of them and Elwin reappeared, clutching a pot of ointment. “Okay, let’s see those hands again.”

  Sophie crinkled her nose as he spread the golden sludge across the burns. “Ew, Elwin. What’s in that stuff?”

  “Trust me, you don’t want to know. It needs to sit for a minute, so let’s see this starlight you bottled.” He knelt next to the stellarscope and his
brows furrowed.

  “What is it?” Dex asked.

  “I don’t know.” He tapped the bottle quickly with one fingertip. “It’s cold. What star did you say this came from?”


  “Doesn’t sound familiar. Well, don’t do anything with this until you show Sir Astin. And be careful.” He gently removed the bottle from the scope and handed it to Dex. Then he wrapped the bottle in one of his rags and tucked it in Sophie’s bag. He checked Sophie’s hands again, and this time the burns were totally gone.

  “Thanks, Elwin,” she mumbled.

  “That’s what I’m here for. You guys okay now?”

  “Yep. We’re going home.”

  “Good. Come by my office tomorrow, Sophie. I want to make sure I didn’t miss anything.”

  She sighed. He should set up a permanent spot for her.

  “All right, my work is done here. Get home safe. Oh, and, Sophie? Better wash your hands, like, twenty times.”

  SOPHIE DIDN’T FEEL LIKE GETTING into the whole long story, so when Grady and Edaline asked how her night went, she just shrugged and said, “Good.” Then she took the longest, hottest, soapiest shower of her life. She planned to tell them in the morning, but one of the griffins escaped, so she figured she’d tell them about it when she got home. Maybe by then her Mentors would have explained what went wrong.

  She got to school early to stop by Elwin’s office discreetly. He was pleased with the healing but made her drink sour medicine just to be safe.

  She’d planned to ask Sir Conley about the strange starlight during elementalism, but he had her bottling flames, and she almost caught her cape on fire—twice. He gave her a thick, boring-looking book on firecatching to read before finals. Stupid cape.

  The worry caught up with her in the cafeteria. It seemed she was the only one who had any problems with the starlight assignment, which did not bode well for her grade. It didn’t help that as soon as she set out her bottles, Sir Astin frowned. “Where’s your seventh star?”

  She bit her lip. She’d been hoping he wouldn’t count. “Something weird happened. The stellarscope burned me when I bottled it.”

  His eyes widened, but he shook his head. “No—that’s absurd. It couldn’t be. . . .”

  “Do you want to see the bottle? I think there’s something wrong with it, but you tell me.”

  She dug the bundle out of her satchel. The icy chill stung her fingers even through the thick fabric, and it was heavier than the other bottles, almost like there was something solid inside. The glow was blinding when she unwrapped it.

  Sir Astin was always pale, but he looked downright ghostly as he jumped back and screamed, “Don’t move!”

  She froze. “Should I wrap it back up?”

  “I said don’t move! I need to think.” He started pacing, mumbling incoherently.

  “Okay, will you please tell me what this is? You’re freaking me out.”

  He laughed darkly. “Have you ever heard of Quintessence?”

  “The fifth element? I thought that was just a myth.”

  “I’m sure what you’ve heard is a myth. But the element is real. Quintessence is light in its truest, most powerful form. Under the right conditions, that little bottle could blow up this whole building—or worse.”

  She gulped. What was worse than blowing up a building? “What do we do?”

  “I have no idea!” He wrung his hands. “How did this happen?”

  “I don’t know. I was just trying to fit the pattern.”

  “The pattern was metals! The stars on the list have metallic-toned light. You should have bottled something bronze or brass. Not this!” He gestured wildly at the bottle.

  Her cheeks flamed. Now that he mentioned it, the pattern did seem pretty obvious. “I’m sorry. For some reason I thought I needed to find Elementine.”

  He froze. “Where did you learn that name?”

  “I don’t know. Probably from one of those star maps I memorized.”

  “No, Sophie. I never taught you that name. No one teaches that name.” His voice was hushed—barely audible.

  That explained why Dex and Elwin had never heard of it. “But I had to learn it here,” she insisted. “How else would I know it?”

  “I have no idea. Elementine is one of the five unmapped stars. Only the Councillors know their exact locations—and no one is allowed to bottle their light.” He swallowed loudly. “You’ve broken a very serious law, Sophie. This will merit a tribunal to decide how you should be punished.”


  THE HEARING WAS IN ETERNALIA, IN TRIBUNAL Hall. A blue banner flew from the dome, just like it had the first time Fitz took Sophie there. But this time it was for her.

  Sophie sat next to Alden on a raised platform facing the twelve empty thrones of the Councillors. Behind her sat Grady and Edaline, Dex, Sir Astin, Dame Alina, and Elwin—everyone remotely involved with the Quintessence incident. The rest of the enormous room was empty. The proceedings had been closed to the public, a rare procedure for a tribunal. But Alden explained that anything involving Quintessence had to be kept top secret.

  Each throne had a name carved across the top. Oralie’s had velvet cushions and a heart-shaped back covered in pink tourmaline. Kenric’s was sturdy and simple, made of polished wood encrusted with large pieces of amber. Bronte’s was plain silver dotted with onyx. The rest were names she’d never heard: Clarette, Velia, Terik, Liora, Emery, Ramira, Darek, Noland, Zarina. Their names alone were intimidating. She tugged out an eyelash and flicked it away.

  A mere two hours had passed since the moment Sophie showed Sir Astin the glowing bottle, but it felt like everything had changed. Foxfire was evacuated—a first in its three-thousand-year history. A special task force moved the Quintessence to an undisclosed location. Now she sat in the capital city—on trial for violating a major law. Bronte was probably salivating over the chance to convict her.

  Sophie sat up straighter as a dozen goblins marched into the room and stationed themselves in front of the thrones. She remembered them from Lumenaria, but she’d forgotten how huge they were.

  “Bodyguards for the Councillors,” Alden explained.

  Her eyes focused on the strange swordlike weapons slung through their belts, and she couldn’t help wondering what the Councillors needed protection from. Alden was always saying how safe their world was.

  A loud fanfare blasted through the room, and everyone rose as the Councillors appeared in front of their thrones. Dripping in jewels, draped in gleaming silver capes, and crowned with circlets, they made human royalty look like amateurs. Sophie’s lunch churned in her stomach.

  “Please be seated,” announced a Councillor with shoulder-length black hair and eyes that matched the sapphires in his crown. His throne said Emery across the top. “Thank you for coming on such short notice. We shall begin with you, Miss Foster.”

  She stood and gave the world’s most ungraceful curtsy. Oralie moved to Sophie’s side, placing one hand on her shoulder and holding her hand with the other.

  “Answer my questions honestly and there will be no problems,” Emery warned.

  Sophie nodded, the fear so consuming she wondered if she would be sick. She kept her eyes away from Bronte, knowing if she caught his cold gaze, she might lose it.

  “Where did you learn of the existence and location of Elementine?”

  “I don’t know.” Her voice trembled.

  Emery glanced at Oralie. She nodded.

  “What made you look for it?”

  “My Universe homework.”

  Sir Astin coughed behind her, like he was unhappy with her answer.

  “What was it about your homework that made you think of it?” Emery asked.

  “Honestly? It just sounded right.”

  Oralie nodded again and Sophie finally understo
od. Oralie was reading her emotions—a living, breathing lie detector.

  “Have you any idea what to use Quintessence for?” Emery asked. “Consider your answer carefully, Miss Foster—this is crucial.”

  She racked her brain. There was something there—an idea so fuzzy she couldn’t make sense of it. “I don’t know.”

  “Oralie?” Emery asked when Oralie frowned.

  “She’s confused,” she said in her fragile voice. “But not lying.”

  Emery nodded and closed his eyes, placing his hands against his temples.

  The silence stretched endlessly, and Sophie wondered if she’d said something wrong. Finally, Emery opened his eyes. “Thank you, Miss Foster. You may be seated.”

  Her legs felt like Jell-O, but somehow she hobbled back to her seat beside Alden.

  “Sir Astin,” Emery said, and Sir Astin jumped out of his chair. Oralie returned to her throne. A Telepath could monitor Sir Astin’s thoughts for honesty. His mind wasn’t impenetrable, like Sophie’s. “What stars was she assigned?”

  “They were, uh . . .” Sir Astin cleared his throat and fidgeted. “I believe they were . . .”

  Emery’s sigh echoed off the walls. “Do you remember, Miss Foster?”

  She leaped to her feet and gave another awkward curtsy. “Yes. It was Argento, Auriferria, Pennisi, Merkariron, Styggis, and Achromian.”

  Emery closed his eyes. “Can you repeat those one more time, slower?”

  She did, noticing that Kenric was plotting the stars on a map. He sucked in a breath.

  “Who created this list?” Emery demanded, glancing at Kenric.

  “I’m not certain,” Sir Astin admitted, cowering. “All the Universe Mentors submit them, and it wasn’t one of the lists I made.”

  “That’s convenient,” Bronte scoffed, and Sophie’s gaze followed his voice, against her better judgment. She shivered. He looked even more frightening seated at his jeweled throne.

  Emery held up his hand and Bronte fell silent. “Who assigned her that list?” The velvet folds of his voice hardened, but his face remained expressionless.