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All he wanted was some sleep, so he could think more clearly. Never had his life been this fraught with so much tension and critical decisions.
As he wove through the gates, the sun slowly dipping behind the main building and casting gruesome shadows throughout the courtyard, he wondered if he just should have confessed to Obsidian's strangeness that first day. One choice, it had all come down to that.
If he had, his life wouldn't be in such an upheaval. The council would have sent Obsidian home, and he would have continued on, oblivious of the wonder of another world and the duplicity of the Guardians.
Did he want that, though? No. The truth in all things. His mother had ground in that precept as he was growing up. Any time he'd been caught even in a little white lie, she'd railed.
And he believed in the core of that precept.
The council's lies needed to be investigated, at the least. But carefully and methodically. Once Bishop was safely back in Turss, and Damian had figured out how to reveal Obsidian's gate without implicating her, he'd work on rooting out the truth, no matter how deep it was buried.
First he had to calm Obsidian's panic. Her insistence that Guardians intended any physical harm to anyone in Nect was preposterous. Every time she'd brought it up, he'd cringed inside. Guardians existed to protect Nect from the dangers of the portals -- he still believed that was true. Protectors don't harm their charges. That would be like a shepherd sacrificing one of its sheep because it kept wandering from the rest of the flock.
Damian entered the council building, turned the corner, and ran straight into Bear. He stumbled backward from the unexpected wall.
"What are you doing here?" The guard sneered and thumbed his nose.
Those below must respect those above. One precept that was grating on Damian's sensibilities. Not only due to the obvious secrets sheltered by the older Guardians, but because of boorish fools like Bear.
This man had taken pleasure in picking on him for years, and he had no idea why. As a matter of fact, the older Guardian had been in charge of Damian's age group for a time, when he was only five or six -- he'd encouraged the other kids to heckle him.
It was impossible to respect someone so cruel. "I'm here to speak to a council member."
Bear chuckled, deep and self-satisfied. "No."
"You have no right to deny me--"
"I have exactly that right. I'm the guard to the council." The large man glanced over his shoulder, as if double-checking that no one hovered behind him to contradict his declaration. "Anyway, as it's the dinner hour, the council has wrapped for the night. You can come back at a proper time tomorrow and see how I feel then."
Damian felt a rumbling start low in his throat. "What exactly is your problem with me? I've suffered your derision since I was little and you were only a few years older than I am now. What is it that makes an adult hate a child so much?"
Bear opened his mouth, then shut it, seemingly unable to reply.
Now he'd done it. All of his properness had been thrown out the window. Obsidian had officially not only scrambled his thoughts, but had impressed on his actions as well.
The older Guardian finally found his senses and stomped up to Damian until he hovered over him like the bough of a tree. An uncomfortably close one. "Listen, you little punk. You'd be furious too if you were passed over for some baby who hadn't even spoken his first word yet. You're their chosen one, their golden child. They've been grooming you since before your mother pushed you out. Not a hair out of place, not a rule broken. They have plans for you. And Guardians like me get shunted to the side because of it."
Plans? Damian's heart skipped beats, his breath stilled, and his throat locked up.
"Is that Guardian Damian?" Councilwoman Liss's voice rose strong and confident from further down the hall. "Bear, please send him into the council chambers. I'd like to have a word with him."
"Of course, Councilwoman Liss." He lowered his voice. "Not a word to her about what I said. Hear me?"
Doing this man a favor wasn't on the top of Damian's list, but it was in his own best interest to keep quiet about what had just been confessed to him. "Loud and clear."
Bear moved to allow Damian to pass, and he did so, eager to leave the jaded man behind. He'd realized the council was keeping secrets, but not that some of those secrets concerned him.
Earlier, everything had paused, but now jitters shook his limbs, and he couldn't get air fast enough. Liss had always made him nervous at the best of times, but now after the last couple days and Bear's declaration, meeting with her terrified him. He would have preferred any other council member.
No option, so he entered the large council chamber. It seemed so small for just two people, half of the gas lamps turned off, dimming the room, making it more foreboding.
Instead of sitting behind the long desk, Liss beckoned to him at the front row of chairs. She sat and clearly expected him to do likewise. Right next to her.
He much preferred the bit of distance with her being behind the desk. No such luck.
So Damian forced his feet forward and mechanically sat down in the seat to the right of the councilwoman. Then he urged the words out. He'd ask about Ama, then escape as quickly as possible. "I'm sorry to disturb you at this time of day, but I'm here to allay my dedicant's nerves."
Liss propped her elbow on the back of her chair and smiled. The gesture appeared strange on her face, fake. Even sinister. Or perhaps that was just his imagination and lack of sleep getting the best of him. "Quite all right. Go ahead."
"Dedicant Obsidian noticed one of her roommates is gone. She's worried about what might have happened to her. I reassured her that she likely just went home, due to having determined she didn't have the gumption to become a Guardian. She was still fretting since her roommate never said goodbye, so I offered to ask a council member what happened to her."
"Hm. Ama?" She leaned forward a little, the smile sliding off her face as if it were a true mask that had been removed. Way too close.
"Yes." He practically had to choke the word out.
Thankfully she shifted back again. "Ah, yes. Nice woman. But unfortunately not a Guardian. The portal script remained elusive to her, and therefore her studies couldn't be continued. While she had some time left, she realized it wasn't enough. Mirim brought Ama before us today, as she'd requested. We dissolved all bonds, and sent her on her way home, as is our wont."
Even though Damian didn't believe Obsidian's accusations, he wanted to be sure things were right for her. So he took a moment to study Liss, searching for deception in her eyes, but only steel gray seriousness met him. Nothing like he'd experienced with his mother, though his familiarity with her made her easier to read.
He couldn't see a hint of anything to convince him to press. If Obsidian remained persistent, he could always talk to Mirim tomorrow. She was his mentor only two years ago, and he'd more likely discern any signs of lying from her.
"Thank you. I'll reassure her that Ama is safely on her way home." Damian stood, ready to rush out, but Liss grabbed his arm. Her touch froze him.
"Please, sit. I have some questions of my own." The weird smile was back, souring his stomach.
Those below must respect those above. Unlike Bear, Liss had never given him a reason to do anything but respect her, so he sat again.
"Aside from this bit of worry, how is your dedicant?"
Damian swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. Did she know about what had happened? Turmoil? Bishop? The portal book that he was suddenly hyper aware of being tucked into the bag slung over his shoulder? "She's doing well. A little frustrated by the number of precepts, but she's determined." Not a single word was a lie. She'd done so well that she already knew how to read the portal language. And oh, was she ever a determined individual.
"Good, good. And how do you feel about her?"
His face heated. Guardians didn't talk much about feelings. The question seemed especially odd coming from a council member. Not to mention it made him uncomfortable to no end. Obsidian had spun him in an emotional tumult since she'd arrived. "Um."
Liss patted his hand, and he wanted to scratch the spot she touched. "Don't worry. I take it as a good sign if you can't put your emotions into words. We thought she'd be a good balance for you."
"Yes, she's a bit strong-willed by our calculations, however she has a softer side to her that might smooth out your rough edges. If you know what I mean."
Damian wondered how much they actually knew about Obsidian. Clearly more than he'd assumed -- the poise he'd seen when she stood before the council had been nearly impeccable. Yet they'd realized a couple of her quirks even before pairing her with him.
But smooth his rough edges? Whatever was Liss talking about? A dedicant doesn't affect change on a mentor, but the other way around.
Well, unfortunately she had changed him. Only due to her rashness and determination to break every precept within days of stepping into the House of Portals.
The grin on Liss's face, though, it spoke to so much more. As though she'd expected...
No. They couldn't have planned for that. He swallowed, throat so dry it hurt.
The council hoped Damian would fall for Obsidian. An arranged match.
"Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?" He needed to escape this room. Her stare. Now. "I really should be getting back to Obsidian."
"Of course, of course. Off you go."
Damian didn't wait for any more encouragement. He rose and hustled to the door and practically ran over Bear in his rush to get out of the building.
The fresh air in the courtyard struck him, a welcome balm. He leaned over and rested his hands on his thighs. Thoughts swirled in his head, more questions than sureties.
Was pairing him with Obsidian part of what Bear had mentioned? Did they have his whole life mapped out, determined by their designs?
Had his mother and father even wanted him, or had his birth simply been a mission, a job, for them to create a tool that the council could mold?
That idea snagged on his mind, a sense of dread and loss clinging to him.
Then anger burned behind his eyes, shoving his horror of it all aside. How dare they try to manipulate his life, his choices.
Though if he truly thought about it, that was exactly what every single precept did. But this -- this was meddling on the highest order.
And he couldn't simply let it go. Obsidian had instilled that much in him. He wouldn't just walk away, cowed, willing to give up his autonomy to do as they bid. Nothing against Obsidian, but his life had been too much of a tumult the last couple of days for him to consider her as a future partner.
Perhaps he didn't want to be with anyone. And Obsidian pined for Bishop anyhow -- she'd likely make good on her threat of going back to Turss with him.
Damian stomped back into the building, determined to confront Liss and tell her he didn't appreciate being paired off with someone he barely knew. That he'd choose who and when to spend his life with. He wasn't sure where his declaration would lead him, but he couldn't remain quiet about this.
Before he turned the corner, though, to enter the main circular hallway, Liss's voice fixed his feet to the ground, as if roots had sprung from the floor and wrapped around his shins.
"You're sure Ama is properly situated? Mirim delivered her without problem or protest?"
"Well, there's always protest." Bear chuckled. "Until I dose them."
"Double-check her. Make sure she stays drugged. I don't want any chances on this. We have a dedicant with a heap of determination, if she's unwilling to accept what she's told. Until we're sure the waters are calm, we won't begin the experiments." Councilwoman Liss's voice faded as she spoke -- walking down the hall, away from the entrance. "And ensure there's a guard on duty at all times in the lab."
Damian's heart thudded so hard he thought both Liss and Bear would hear it. He slipped back out the door, as quietly as he could, though even the slightest movement sounded loud to his ears.
Then he sped around the gates through the courtyard until he reached the hill that hid Turmoil. Once safely inside, away from appraising eyes, he fell to his knees and wrapped his head in his arms.
Far too many surprises today. This one the worst.
Obsidian was right. And Damian sobbed, for the loss of his beliefs, the instability of his life, and poor, poor Ama.
Chapter 29 - Expected October 2021.