Keeper of the Lost Cities, Page 5Shannon Messenger
“Not for a few thousand years,” Alden promised. “By then I doubt you’ll mind.”
Sophie sank into a chair, barely noticing that Fitz sat next to her. Her brain was on autorepeat: Thousand years, thousand years, thousand years. “How long do elves live?” she asked. Everyone looked young and vibrant—even Bronte.
“We don’t know,” Kenric said, scooting his chair a touch closer to Oralie’s than he really needed to. “No one’s died of old age yet.”
Sophie rubbed her forehead. It actually hurt her brain trying to understand this. “So, you’re saying elves are . . . immortal?”
“No.” A trace of sorrow hid in Alden’s voice. “We can die. But our bodies stop aging when we reach adulthood. We don’t get wrinkles or gray hair. Only our ears age.” He smiled at Bronte, who glowered back. “Bronte belongs to a group we call the Ancients, which is why his ears are so distinct. Please, help yourselves,” he added, pointing to the domed platters in front of each guest.
Sophie uncovered hers and fought to hide her grimace. Black strips and purple mushy glop didn’t exactly scream Eat me. She forced herself to take a bite, stunned when the purple goop tasted like the juiciest cheeseburger ever. “What is this stuff?”
“That’s mashed carnissa root. The black strips are umber leaves,” Alden explained.
Sophie took a bite of umber leaf. “Tastes like chicken.”
“You eat animals?” Fitz asked in a tone that would have made more sense if she’d said she ate toxic waste.
Sophie nodded, squirming when Fitz grimaced. “I take it elves are vegetarians.”
She took another bite to hide her horror. It wasn’t that she liked eating animals, but she couldn’t imagine living off only vegetables. Of course, if the vegetables tasted like cheeseburgers, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.
“So, Sophie.” Bronte sneered her name like it bothered him to say it. “Alden tells me you’re a Telepath.”
She swallowed her mouthful, and it sank into her stomach with a thud. It felt wrong discussing her secret so openly.
“Yes. She’s been reading minds since she was five. Isn’t that right, Sophie?” Alden asked when she didn’t respond.
Kenric’s and Oralie’s jaws dropped.
“That’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard,” Bronte argued.
“It’s unusual,” Alden corrected.
Bronte rolled his eyes as he turned to Sophie. “Let’s see how good you are, then. Tell me what I’m thinking.”
Sophie’s mouth went dry as everyone fell silent. Waiting for her.
She glanced at Fitz, remembering his warnings about the rules of telepathy.
“He gave you permission,” Fitz told her.
She nodded, taking a deep breath to stay calm.
Apparently, the test had begun.
SOPHIE NEEDED TO PASS. SHE WANTED THE proper education Fitz had mentioned. She wanted to learn how the world really worked. So she closed her eyes, trying to relax enough to concentrate.
She reached out with her mind like she had the day before. Bronte’s mind felt different from Fitz’s—deeper somehow, like she was stretching her mental shadow much further. And when she finally felt his thoughts, they were more like an icy gust than a gentle breeze.
“You’re thinking that you’re the only one at this table with any common sense,” she announced. “And you’re tired of watching Kenric stare at Oralie.”
Bronte’s jaw fell open and Kenric’s face turned as red as his hair. Oralie looked down at her plate, her cheeks flushing pink.
“I take it that’s right?” Alden asked, hiding his smile behind his hand.
Bronte nodded, looking angry, chagrined, and incredulous all at the same time. “How can that be? An Ancient mind is almost impenetrable.”
“The key word in that sentence is ‘almost,’” Alden reminded him. “Don’t feel bad—she’s also breached Fitz’s blocking.”
Guilt tugged at Sophie’s conscience as she watched Fitz flush red. Especially when Bronte grinned and said, “Sounds like Alden’s golden boy isn’t as infallible as everyone thinks.”
“It’s more likely that Sophie is exceptionally special,” Alden corrected. “Fitz also saw her lift more than ten times her weight with telekinesis yesterday.”
“You’re kidding!” Kenric gasped, recovering from his embarrassment. “At her age? Now that I have to see.”
Sophie shrank in her chair. “But . . . I don’t know how I did it. It just sort of happened.”
“Just relax, Sophie. Why not try something small?” Alden pointed to the crystal goblet in front of her.
That didn’t sound too hard—and maybe it was like her telepathy. Another sense she had to learn how to use.
She replayed the accident, remembering the way she’d found the strength deep inside, and pushed it out through her fingers. Could she do that again?
She raised her arm and imagined lifting the goblet with an invisible hand. Nothing happened for a second, and her palms started to sweat. Then something pulled in her stomach, and the glass floated off the table.
Sophie stared at the goblet in wonder. “I did it.”
“That’s it?” Bronte scoffed, unimpressed.
He needed more? Seriously?
“Give her a second. She’s still getting used to her ability.” Alden put his hand on her shoulder. “Take a deep breath—relax—then see what else you can do. And remember, your mind has no limitations—unlike your physical body.”
Alden’s calm confidence gave her the courage to try harder. She tried to think about the clue he was giving her. No limitations. What did that mean?
Maybe she could lift more than one thing at once. She blew out a breath, pretending she had five more imaginary hands to extend. The tug in her gut felt sharper, but it was worth it when the other five goblets rose like crystal flying saucers.
Kenric applauded. “Excellent control.”
Her cheeks grew warm with the praise. “Thanks.”
Bronte snorted. “It’s a couple of glasses. I thought she was supposed to be able to lift ten times her body weight.”
Sophie bit her lip. She wasn’t sure how much more she could handle, but she was determined to impress Bronte.
She must be stronger than she realized—how else could she have stopped the lantern? She took another deep breath and shoved every ounce of the force she could feel in her core toward the empty chair next to Bronte.
A collective gasp rang in the air as three chairs floated off the ground, including the one Bronte sat on.
“Incredible,” Alden breathed.
Sophie didn’t have time to celebrate. Her stomach cramped from the strain and her hold broke. She screamed as the goblets shattered against the table and the chairs crashed to the floor, knocking Bronte flat on his back with a thunderous collision.
For a second no one said anything; they just stared in open-mouthed shock. But when Bronte hollered for someone to help him up, everyone burst into a fit of laughter.
Except Sophie. She’d dropped one of the Councillors. She was pretty sure she’d sealed her future with that mistake.
Kenric clapped her on the back, pulling her out of her worries. “I’ve never seen such natural talent. You’re even a natural at our language. Your accent is perfect. Almost as perfect as these guys’.” He pointed to Alden and Fitz.
“I’m sorry, what?” she asked, assuming she’d heard him wrong.
Fitz laughed. “You’ve been speaking the Enlightened Language since we leaped here—just like you did yesterday.”
She was speaking a different language—with an accent?
language is instinctive,” Alden explained. “We speak from birth—I’m sure people thought you were an interesting baby. Though to humans our language sounds like babbling.”
Her parents were always teasing her about what a noisy baby she was. She gripped the table. “Is there a word that sounds like ‘soybean’ in English?”
“Soybean?” Alden asked.
“I used to say it as a baby. My parents thought I was trying to say my name and mispronouncing it. They even turned it into a nickname—a really annoying one.” She blushed when Fitz chuckled beside her.
Kenric shrugged. “I can’t think of what that would be.”
Fitz and Oralie nodded. But Alden looked pale.
“What is it?” Bronte asked him, still dusting off his cape from his fall.
Alden waved the words away. “Probably nothing.”
“I’ll decide if it’s nothing,” Bronte insisted.
Alden sighed. “It’s . . . possible she was saying suldreen—but it’s a stretch.”
Bronte’s mouth tightened into a hard line.
“What does suldreen mean?” Sophie asked.
Alden hesitated before he answered. “It’s the proper name for a moonlark, a rare species of bird.”
“And that’s bad because . . . ?” She hated the way everyone was looking at her—like she was a puzzle they couldn’t solve. Adults were always looking at her that way, but usually she could hear their thoughts and know why they were so bothered. She missed that now.
“It’s not bad. It’s just interesting,” Alden said quietly.
Bronte snorted. “Troubling is what it is.”
“Why would it be troubling?” Sophie asked.
“It would be an uncomfortable coincidence. But most likely you were trying to say your name. You were hearing it all the time so it’s natural that you would try to repeat it.” Alden said it like he was trying to convince himself as much as her.
“Well, I think I’ve heard quite enough to make my decision,” Bronte barked, shoving all thoughts of moonlarks out of her mind. “I vote against—and you will not convince me otherwise.”
Sophie wasn’t surprised, but she couldn’t fight off her panic. Had she failed?
Kenric shook his head. “You’re being absurd, Bronte. I vote in favor—and you won’t convince me otherwise.”
She held her breath as all eyes turned to Oralie for the final vote. Oralie hadn’t said a word the entire time, so Sophie had no idea where she stood.
“Give me your hand, Sophie,” Oralie said in a voice as fragile and lovely as her face.
“Oralie’s an Empath,” Fitz explained. “She can feel your emotions.”
Sophie’s arm shook as she extended her hand. Oralie grasped it with a delicate touch.
“I feel a lot of fear and confusion,” Oralie whispered. “But I’ve never felt such sincerity. And there’s something else. . . . I’m not sure I can describe it.” She opened her huge, azure eyes and stared at Sophie. “You have my vote.”
Alden clapped his hands together with a huge grin. “That settles it then.”
“For now,” Bronte corrected. “This will be revisited. I’ll make sure of it.”
Alden’s smile faded. “When?”
“We should wait till the end of the year. Give Sophie some time to adjust,” Kenric announced.
“Excellent,” Alden agreed.
“Fools,” Bronte grumbled. “I invoke my right as Senior Councillor to demand a probe.”
Alden rose with a nod. “I’d planned as much. I’ve arranged to bring her to Quinlin as soon as we’re done here.”
Sophie knew she should probably celebrate, but she was too busy trying to decipher the word “probe.” That didn’t sound fun.
“What’s a probe?” she asked Fitz as Alden led everyone else out of the room.
Fitz leaned back in his chair. “Just a different way to read your mind. It’s no big deal. Happens all the time when you’re in telepathy training—which it looks like you’ll be. I can’t believe you passed. It looked iffy there for a minute.”
“I know.” She sighed. “Why did Bronte demand a probe?”
“Because he’s a pain. Well, that and I think he’s worried that my dad couldn’t read your mind.”
“I guess maybe ‘bothered’ is a better word. My dad’s really good. And so am I.” He flashed a cocky smile. “So if we can’t read your mind, it’s kind of like, who can?”
“Okay,” she said, trying to make sense of what he was saying. “But why does he care if no one can read my mind?”
“Probably because of your upbringing.”
She took a deep breath, reluctant to say the next words. “You mean the fact that my family is human. And I’m not.”
A second passed before he nodded.
Emptiness exploded inside her. So it wasn’t a mistake. She really wasn’t related to her family—and Fitz knew. He wouldn’t look at her, and she could tell he was uncomfortable.
She choked down the pain, saving it for later, when she’d be able to deal with it in private. She cleared her throat, trying to sound normal. “Why would that concern him?”
“Because it’s never happened before.”
The warm, bright room felt suddenly colder. “Never?”
It was a tiny word, but the implications it carried were huge.
Why was she living with humans?
Before she could ask, Alden swept back into the room. “Sophie, why don’t you come with me, and we’ll get you something else to wear. You’d better change too, Fitz.”
Sophie hesitated. She should probably make them take her home. Her parents had to know by now that she’d ditched school.
Then again, she was already in trouble—might as well stall the punishment as long as possible. Plus, she wasn’t ready to go home yet. She needed more answers.
“Where are we going?” she asked as she followed Alden out of the room.
Alden smiled. “How would you like to see Atlantis?”
THIS IS ATLANTIS?” SOPHIE COULDN’T quite hide her disappointment.
They were in the middle of nowhere, on a patch of dark rocks surrounded by white-capped waves. The only signs of life were a few seagulls, and all they did was screech and poop. It was hardly the lost continent she’d expected.
“This is how we get to Atlantis,” Alden corrected as he stepped across a tide pool toward a triangular rock. “Atlantis is underneath us, where light doesn’t reach. We can’t leap there.”
It was hard not to slip on the slick rocks as she followed Fitz, especially in the red shoes Alden insisted she wear to match the long gown. She’d begged to wear pants, but apparently it was a sign of status for a girl to wear a gown, especially in Atlantis, which Alden explained was a noble city, which meant members of the nobility had offices there. The empire waist and beaded neckline of her dress made her feel like she was wearing a costume.
It was even stranger seeing Fitz in elvin clothes: a long blue tunic with elaborate embroidery around the edges and slender pockets sewn into the sleeves—the exact same size as his pathfinder. Black pants with pockets at the ankles—so he didn’t have to sit on the stuff he carried, he’d explained—and black boots completed the look. No sign of tights or pointy shoes—thankfully—but he looked more like an elf now, which made everything more real.
A rock moved under her foot and she fell into Fitz’s arms. “Sorry,” she whispered, knowing her face was as red as her dress.
Fitz shrugged. “I’m used to it. My sister, Biana, is clumsy too.”
She wasn’t sure she liked that comparison. “So, Atlantis really sank?” she asked, changing the subject as she fo
llowed him to a ledge high above the water.
“The Ancients engineered the catastrophe,” Alden answered. He opened a secret compartment in the side of the strange rock, revealing hundreds of tiny glass bottles, grabbed one, and joined them on the ledge. “How else would humans think we disappeared?”
Sophie glanced at the label on the bottle. ONE WHIRLPOOL. OPEN WITH CARE.
“Step back.” Alden uncorked the top and flung the bottle into the ocean. A huge blast of wind whipped against their faces, and the roar of churning water filled the air.
“Ladies first,” Alden shouted, pointing to the edge.
“Maybe you should go first, Dad,” Fitz suggested.
Alden nodded, gave a quick wave, and jumped. Sophie screamed.
Fitz laughed beside her. “Your turn.” He dragged her toward the edge.
“Please tell me you’re joking,” she begged as she tried—and failed—to pull away.
“It looks worse than it is,” he promised.
She gulped, staring at the maelstrom swirling beneath her. Cold, salty water sprayed her face. “You seriously expect me to jump?”
“I can push you if you’d prefer.”
“Don’t even think about it!”
“Better jump then. I’ll give you to the count of five.” He stepped toward her. “One.”
“Okay, okay.” She wanted to keep what little dignity she had left.
She took a slow, deep breath, closed her eyes, and stepped off the edge, screaming the whole way down. It took her a second to realize she wasn’t drowning, and another after that to stop flailing around like an idiot. She opened her eyes and gasped.
The whirlpool formed a tunnel of air, dipping and weaving through the dark water like the craziest waterslide ever. She was actually starting to enjoy the ride when she launched out of the vortex onto an enormous sponge. It felt like being licked from head to toe by a pack of kittens—minus the kitten breath—and then the sponge sprang back, leaving her standing on a giant cushion.
Her hands froze as she smoothed her dress. “I’m not wet.”
“The sponge absorbs the water when you land. Incoming!” Alden yanked her out of the way as Fitz rocketed onto the sponge, right where she’d been standing.