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Keeper of the Lost Cities, Page 33

Shannon Messenger

  “What?” she asked, when he didn’t finish.

  “I wonder if he’s the reason you’ve developed more abilities. He might have triggered some after he rescued you. They were exactly the skills you needed to survive.”

  She didn’t remember that much of what happened, but she did remember feeling five years old again. Was that because he’d done the same thing he’d done back then?

  She shook her head. It was too much.

  Her whole life she’d been controlled and manipulated—and they were still doing it.

  “Why?” she asked, wishing she had something to throw. “Why put me with humans? Why all the secrets? What was the point?”

  “I don’t know,” Alden whispered as he rose to pace. “I’d always assumed it was to hide you from us. But maybe there was more to it than that. Tell me this—why did you risk everything to bottle the Everblaze?”

  She was surprised he had to ask. “People were dying.”

  “Humans were dying,” he corrected. “And no one cared enough to stop it. Except you. I think you can hardly deny your upbringing played a big role in that decision. Maybe that’s what the Black Swan wanted all along. If you’re right—and they’re working against these other rebels, who seem to want to destroy the human race—then perhaps they thought it would be wise to have someone who cared about humans on their side.”

  “I’m not on their side.”

  “That doesn’t mean they don’t want you to be.” He paused to stare out the window. “The only ones who’ll know for sure are the Black Swan. It’s time we find them and ask them.”

  He made it sound so simple, like he could just look up their address in the phone book. “They’ve been hiding from you for years. What makes you think you can find them now?”

  He held up the memory log. “We’ll run these images through the registry database. Your neighbor might be hard to match, but we’ll check every Telepath until we find him and force him to lead us to the Black Swan. In the meantime, we’ll use the other picture to find the identity of the kidnapper. Once we catch him, we’ll be able to probe his mind to find the others.”

  She curled her knees into her chest, shaking her head. “I told him I recognized him. I’m sure he’s in hiding now.”

  “It’s not that easy to hide from us.”

  “No offense, but it doesn’t seem like it’s that hard. The Black Swan hid me for twelve years—and you only found me when they led you to me. The kidnappers hid us somewhere in Paris and you had no idea. They have secret leaping crystals hidden among humans that no one knows about—except the other rebels. I think it’s easier to hide here than in human cities. At least they have security cameras and detectives and police.”

  Alden sighed. “I see why you might feel that way, but you have to understand, Sophie. Humans have those measures in place because conspiracies and arson and kidnapping are common. Those are unheard of here. Or they used to be.”

  He shook his head. “For thousands of years the Council reigned supreme. They were the wisest, most talented members of our society, working together for the greater good. No one questioned their authority. But the past few decades have changed everything.”


  “Humans. They’ve developed weapons powerful enough to destroy the planet. So about sixty years ago a measure was brought before the Council to create a new Sanctuary specifically for humans, to relocate them for the good of the earth—and their own safety. It had a lot of support. Some very influential people have grown tired of hiding in the shadows while humans run amok throughout the globe. But the Council rejected it, refusing to imprison an intelligent species. For the record, I agree with their decision.”

  Sophie nodded. Humans would be devastated if their lives were uprooted that way.

  “The supporters of the initiative were angry with the Council. Some called for members to resign—especially Bronte, since he was the most outspoken against the idea—and there were threats to go ahead with the plan anyway. The Council didn’t take the threats seriously, but they forbade human contact of any kind and recruited Telepaths like myself to keep our minds open for suspicious activity. All talk of rebellion vanished, and the Council was satisfied. Crisis solved.”

  He sighed. “I’d always suspected the rebels moved underground—though I never would have guessed there was more than one group. I’m afraid I’ve been almost as blind as the Council.” His shoulders sagged as he stared at the ground.

  “Even when I found your DNA, none of the Councillors would believe you really existed, or that if you did, that it had anything to do with rebellion. That’s why things have been handled so poorly. But they can’t ignore it anymore.

  “An elf tried to burn the Forbidden Cities to the ground with Everblaze. A team of alchemists had to spend days making Frissyn to put out fires all over the globe. Two children were kidnapped by an unregistered Pyrokinetic and held prisoner while we held funerals for them.” His voice cracked, and he paused for a second, clearing his throat. “The Council has been forced to admit the rebellion exists, and you can rest assured that this threat will be resolved. We have tremendous power at our disposal. We just haven’t been using it.”

  Sophie reached for Ella, hugging her to her chest to hide her shaking.

  She wanted to believe him, but it was hard. The rebels were smart, and very well organized. If they wanted to get to her, she had no doubt that they could.

  But she had a bodyguard now. He would keep her safe—though she wasn’t in love with the idea of a giant gray goblin following her around all the time.

  “I can tell you’re still worrying, Sophie, and I don’t blame you. But trust me on this. The rebellion will be stamped out very quickly now that the Council is willing to acknowledge it. Anyone involved will be brought to justice.”

  “I hope so,” she whispered, trying not to think about the ghostly voiced elf who was out there somewhere, plotting revenge. “I’ll see if I can trigger any memories that might help.”

  “No.” Alden sat beside her. “I don’t want you involved. You’ve been a big help, and you have incredible powers at your disposal, but you’re twelve years old.”

  “Thirteen,” she corrected, realizing her birthday had passed a few months ago. Elves didn’t pay attention to birthdays—given their indefinite life spans—so she’d forgotten.

  “Fine. Thirteen. That’s still too young to be wrapped up in a conspiracy. I want you to make me a new promise.” He waited until she met his eyes. “I want you to promise you will just be a normal, happy, thirteen-year-old girl. Go to school. Make friends. Get crushes on boys. Have fun. No more worrying about secret messages or plots or rebellions. Leave that to boring grown-ups like me.”

  “But I’m not a normal thirteen-year-old girl. I have abilities no one understands—and secrets stored in my brain that people are willing to kill me for.”

  “That may be true, but being special doesn’t mean you can’t have a normal life. You only get seven years to be a teenager. Enjoy them. Promise me you’ll try.”

  A normal life. It sounded too good to be true.

  It was too good to be true.

  After everything she’d been through, she’d accepted that she would never fully belong. It was time to stop pretending that she could.

  “I’ll try,” she agreed, “only if you’ll promise me that if something big happens and you need me, you’ll come to me—even if I’m only thirteen.”

  He held her gaze, like he was waiting for her to blink. She didn’t.

  “You drive a hard bargain,” he relented. “But deal.”

  “Okay, then. I promise.”

  “The Council will be happy to hear that. It will help at your tribunal.”


  His eyes dropped to the floor. “Bronte’s still insisting a tribunal be held for the laws you broke to col
lect the Everblaze. Plus, the Council has to decide your future at Foxfire.”

  She tugged out an eyelash. She’d forgotten how uncertain her future still was. “When will it be?”

  “Not right away. They’ve agreed to wait until you’re strong enough.”

  “I’m strong enough.”

  “Three days ago you had a banshee sleeping at your side, and we were terrified we would have to hold a real funeral for you.”

  “Please don’t make me wait. I can’t stand not knowing.”

  Alden studied her face for a long time before responding. “If that’s what you really want, I’ll arrange everything for tomorrow.”

  She nodded. “It is.”


  SOPHIE SAT NEXT TO ALDEN ON A PEDESTAL facing the twelve Councillors in Tribunal Hall—and this time it was a packed house. Friends, Mentors, strangers. Even enemies. Stina sneered at her as Bronte rose to read the charges.

  Between the laws and the bylaws and the sub-bylaws, she’d committed five major transgressions and eleven minor transgressions—a new record. At least half of them carried the possibility of exile.

  And yet, Sophie wasn’t afraid.

  She’d been drugged and interrogated, watched her best friend tortured for trying to escape, and had to fight her way back from fading away. No matter what the Council decided, it could never be worse than what she’d already survived.

  So her legs didn’t shake as she walked forward to speak her defense, and she didn’t tremble under Bronte’s glare. Her curtsy was as ungraceful as ever—she heard Stina snicker as she lost her balance at the end—but she held her head high as she faced the Council in all their regal glory.

  “Miss Foster,” Emery said, his voice warm. “On behalf of the entire Council I’d like to express our relief that you made it home safely. We’d also like to assure you that we will find whoever was responsible for your kidnapping and make them see justice for their actions.”

  “Thank you,” she said, proud of the strength in her voice.

  “That being said, you stand before us today accused of very serious charges. What have you to say in your defense?”

  She’d spent all night drafting the perfect apology for her actions, but she’d thrown it away before leaving Everglen. She wasn’t sorry for what she’d done, and she wouldn’t pretend otherwise. Oralie would know she was lying, anyway.

  Sophie cleared her throat and addressed the entire Council—even Bronte. “I never wanted to break the law, and I don’t plan on doing it again. But people were losing their houses. People were dying. I know they were humans, but I couldn’t sit back and let it happen. I’m sorry if that’s a crime. I won’t argue if you punish me for my choice, but I firmly believe it was the right decision. I’d rather be punished for making the right decision than live with the guilt of making the wrong one for the rest of my life.”

  Murmurs and whispers filled the room until Emery cleared his throat. Silence fell as he closed his eyes and placed his hands over his temples.

  Most of the Councillors ignored her as they debated, but Terik glanced her way, shooting the tiniest wink when their eyes met. She hoped it was a good sign, but she couldn’t be sure. Emery held out his hands to silence the arguments raging in his head. His eyes locked with Sophie’s, his face unreadable.

  “Thank you for your honesty, Miss Foster. While some of us”—he glanced at Bronte—“feel that your attitude is disrespectful and rebellious, none of us can deny that your actions uncovered a problem and conspiracy we ourselves had overlooked, and for that we owe you our gratitude. We can’t, however, simply ignore the fact that laws were broken.”

  She sucked in a breath, preparing for the worst as the whispers and murmurs buzzed in her ears like static.

  “There was much debate on what proper punishment would be,” Emery continued, with another sidelong glance at Bronte, “but a decision has been reached—and it is unanimous.” He cleared his throat. “Considering the fact that we, as your rulers, failed to protect you from recent unfortunate experiences, we feel that it would be inappropriate to assign any further punishment. Your transgressions will go on your permanent record, but your punishment will be marked as ‘already served’ and that will be the end of the matter. Is that understood?”

  It took a second for the words to sink in—and another after that for her racing mind to realize he expected a response. “Yes,” Sophie practically sang, as the murmurs turned into chatter around her.

  Punishment already served. Could that really be it? Could it really be over?

  “Which brings us to the matter of your Foxfire admission,” Emery shouted over the din, his words like a giant pin bursting the bubble she’d been floating in.

  The room fell silent. Sophie’s heart thundered in her chest.

  “Miss Foster, you were admitted to Foxfire on a provisional basis, and the matter was to be revisited once we’d seen your performance in your sessions. Due, however, to the aforementioned unfortunate experiences, you missed all of your final exams and are currently failing all of your sessions. And in order to preserve the integrity of our testing process, we cannot allow the exams to be made up at this time. So we’re at a bit of a loss as far as how to proceed.”

  Bronte opened his mouth and Emery cut him off. “Your suggestion has been noted, Councillor Bronte. We are, however, hoping to hear a few other suggestions before we decide. I open this up to Miss Foster’s Mentors. Can any of you see a solution to her grade issues?”

  Whispers hissed through the auditorium as all of her Mentors rose from their front row seats and bowed their respect.

  “If I may offer a suggestion,” Tiergan said, smoothing his intricate blue cape as he stood and bowed. He’d dressed up for the occasion—it looked fancier than Lady Galvin’s.

  “Ah, Sir Tiergan,” Emery said, his voice with a harder edge. “It’s been a long time since you’ve stood before us.”

  “Yes. And I hope this time my appeal will be more successful,” he murmured.

  Emery waved his hand, signaling that the floor was his.

  Tiergan shuffled his feet. “Sophie is the most talented Telepath I’ve ever worked with, and I cannot imagine failing her for any reason. If you need proof that her skills hold up under test, well, I can’t think of any better proof than the fact that she managed to transmit halfway across the world to Fitz and send a mental image to guide him to her location—all while her body was fading away. For that alone I’d give her one hundred percent, if the Council would accept it.”

  Sophie resisted the urge to run across the room and hug him.

  There was a moment of silence before Emery nodded. “We would. But if she were to continue her studies at Foxfire, she would require a Mentor, and our records indicate you aren’t planning to return.”

  “I would be willing to extend my stay as Mentor, provided Sophie could remain as my prodigy,” Tiergan agreed, looking only at Sophie.

  She nodded, hoping he knew she appreciated his sacrifice. She knew how much he despised being part of the nobility.

  “Excellent.” Emery turned to the other Mentors. “Anyone else have anything to add?”

  Lady Anwen stepped forward. “Sophie knows more about the human species than any prodigy I’ve had, so I’ll gladly give her one hundred percent in multispeciesial studies. She was already passing with flying colors.”

  Several of the Councillors nodded their agreement. Bronte scowled.

  “The fact that she was able to pull herself back from fading away settles the mind over matter debate quite nicely,” Sir Faxon added. “And should definitely count for one hundred percent in metaphysics.” He bowed, and stepped aside to let Lady Dara forward.

  She dipped an elaborate curtsy. “Sophie didn’t just learn history, she made history. Textbooks will be written about her someday, and I’ll not have them saying she received
anything less that one hundred percent in my session.”

  Hope flared in Sophie’s heart, but she tried to squash it. She still had her toughest Mentors left. She held her breath as Lady Alexine stepped forward.

  “I think the fact that Miss Foster was able to leap an injured friend without a nexus and both of them survived to tell the tale is more than enough to earn her one hundred percent on her physical education exam.”

  “And she found an unmapped star,” Sir Astin added. “Not to mention she has the stars memorized. She definitely deserves one hundred percent in the Universe.”

  All the Councillors were smiling at this point—except Bronte. He turned his murderous glare on Sir Conley as he bowed and cleared his throat.

  “Sophie successfully bottled a sample of Everblaze—something I doubt even I could’ve done. It would be absurd to give her anything less than one hundred percent in elementalism.”

  The room seemed to hold its breath as all eyes turned to Lady Galvin.

  She stood behind the others, fingering the jewels on her dark purple cape.

  “Anything you would like to add?” Emery asked when she didn’t say anything.

  Lady Galvin cleared her throat. “This will not be a popular decision, but Miss Foster barely passed her midterm and has struggled with my session all year. There’s no way I can justifiably pass her.”

  Silence throbbed through the room as Emery frowned. “Nothing will change your mind?”

  She turned to Sophie as she shook her head. “I’m sorry.” She sounded like she meant it.

  The crowd buzzed with murmurs of displeasure, but Sophie could hear Stina’s cackle rise above it all. Right then she would’ve given anything to be a Vanisher and disappear.

  “That is most unfortunate,” Emery said through a sigh. He glanced at the other Councillors, who were shaking their heads—except Bronte, who was smirking like a spider with a trapped fly. “It appears our hands are tied. We cannot allow Miss Foster to advance if she does not qualify for eight subjects. Perhaps we can agree to let her retake the year?” He turned to the other Councillors.