Cyrus silently returned to Ruby Hall and approached the center dais, where he joined Ela, Avona, and Berry. The four Directors had spent the morning dutifully, albeit glumly, discussing some of the mundane items related to the daily operation of Bron Nasaal before taking a recess. Now, the recess was over, and they needed to address the consequences of the incident on the Drop Rock two days ago.
"I know this will be difficult for all of us," Avona said softly once Cyrus was in place, "but it must be done, and the sooner the better for all of Bron Nasaal.
"First, let us consider a replacement for the position of Director of Law Enforcement. Are there any nominations?"
Cyrus closed his eyes and tried to think of anyone, or anything, other than Barash Katan. It was useless, of course. The harder he tried, the more vividly he saw the former Direcctor's body laying lifeless in a pool of blood. Worst of all, Barash had died saving Cyrus, making that death oddly personal as well as his fault.
All of it, his fault.
"I myself would like to nominate a member of the Guild of Physicians," Avona said, her head tilted slightly to the side. "An Arbiter, named Chax Melo. I know him very well, and can say that he cares very much for Bron Nasaal and its residents."
"An Arbiter is well suited for the role," agreed Berry with a nod. "I assume he has empathic healing, as an Arbiter. What other talents does your nomination have?"
"Body language analysis," Avona replied.
"I have no objection," said Ela without the usual melody in her voice. "And we might even have need of his talents, after what we've been through."
"Yes, I had considered that as well," Avona said with a gentle smile.
"How will he take the Dryn Mar?" Cyrus asked, and he thought he detected a hint of nervousness in the smile Avona gave him when she answered.
"He will not like them, at first, but that is to be expected. Once he becomes more familiar, he may be able to help them integrate better."
Cyrus thought he knew what that meant, and he didn't like it but wasn't surprised. As for himself, he had vowed to never use his talents again following the incident on the Drop Rock. He'd made his decision known this morning, and in light of that another empath seemed like a smart choice.
He still had jurisdiction over the Dryn Mar, and could control access to them.
"Do you object?"
Cyrus shook his head in response, and then Avona went through the formalities of cataloguing the question for confirmation from each of the directors.
"Confirmed," they all replied in unison.
"We must now consider what to do with Azad, his son and his lover."
Yesterday, before the remaining Directors, Azad had confessed to everything.
The love he and Deena had for each other.
That the child, Zee, was their natural born son.
His great deception in getting them to the surface.
Zee had been conceived before Deena was selected for breeding. Because Azad was the Director of Resource Management, he had been able to facilitate a nearly impossible scenario.
During the pregnancy, Azad had gone to the surface repeatedly to prepare a place for them. Then, they had staged her death during the birthing, using her cerebromantic feedback talent to dupe the Assessors monitoring her into thinking she had died.
Amazingly, under Azad's tutelage, Deena had gained enough mastery over her talents to not only shape the results seen by her feedback, but those of the child as well. Although Deena appeared to be physically dead, and was able to act the part well enough, the wailing child could not pretend to be dead. Instead, the baby registered no cerebromantic activity at all, and Azad declared that it would be unfit and a drain on resources. Azad had taken the presumed dead Deena and unfit child to the Drop Rock to dispose of them, but had instead released them to the surface.
Cyrus admired Azad incredibly when he learned the lengths the man had gone to for what he believed in.
"Well," said Berry, "he must be stripped of his title, of course."
"He must be dropped," Avona exclaimed, and a tense silence came over them.
Cyrus knew it was the right thing to do of course, under the circumstances. Or at least, it was the lawful thing to do. Azad had conspired against them, in many ways. Yet, Cyrus could not fault the man. Love made you do things you normally wouldn't even consider. Azad himself had said love was a dangerous thing to be in, when they had their quarrel on the Drop Rock.
It seemed like ages ago now.
He could feel Ela's eyes on him, but he couldn't bring himself to face her. No one argued against Avona's demand.
"As for the woman, Deena Kuri," Avona continued, "I propose that an effort is made to rehabilitate her. I believe she is the victim of Azad's influence, and should be given a chance at a normal life."
Cyrus wasn't even sure what a normal life was anymore. Normal for them? Normal for the Dryn Mar? None of it would be normal for Deena Kuri, he knew that, and he doubted she would take to rehabilitation.
"The child, unfortunately, must be dropped."
Cyrus looked at Ela, startled by her cry.
"He is the only one truly innocent in all of this," she said. "Even Deena, who may have been influenced by Azad, was still old enough to know better. Azad's son didn't choose that life."
"Zee," Cyrus said.
"What?" Ela and Avona asked simultaneously.
Cyrus stared at Avona. "The child's name is Zee. I agree with Ela, Zee is innocent, and did not know better."
In his mind, he could clearly remember the child clinging to Azad, and the terrified look in Azad's eyes when they met his own.
Avona smiled sheepishly at Cyrus. "I apologize, I suspected you would be more concerned with the threat the chi – Zee – poses. After all, you, more than anyone, understand the dangerous scenario of someone simply walking through an or-wall and disabling it."
Cyrus sighed wearily, knowing that the point was entirely valid. He knew now that he'd been wrong about Arita, and Azad's plan with the or-walls, though he wished that he'd been right. Regardless, he was unwilling to condemn a child to death. If only one innocent life had been lost through his actions, it would have been one too many. As it was, the number was greater than one, and he would not be party to another.
"It's not up to us," he countered. "Only the Director of Resource Management can declare someone unfit, a drain on the resources, and sentenced to be Dropped."
"Then at the least, we have agreed that Azad is to be stripped of his title, and a replacement appointed," Avona said without missing a beat. "I would like to nominate Guild Master Pry, current head of the Guild of Agriculture."
"Oh, an excellent choice," exclaimed Berry as she flashed a hint of a smile. "She's already heavily involved in the operation of resource management."
"She also already knows about the Dryn Mar," Avona stated.
That got everyone's attention, and Cyrus wondered when Avona stopped being a shy, dismissive member of the council and started becoming an assertive and vocal one.
"How do you know that?"
It was Ela that asked, and Avona tilted her head slightly as she replied with a soft smile, "In the way I sometimes know things. We'll have to ask her how it came to pass."
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
The stress of the last couple days was getting to him, he decided. Avona had the sense to be doing what they all should be, and ensuring that things progressed and got back on track for the good of all Bron Nasaal. She was being practical and logical, as ever she was, and Cyrus was taking it more personally than he should.
"So, Camy Pry seems like a good choice," he said. "I only know her by reputation, but that reputation is very positive. However, the established practice is that we do not confirm a new Director until the previous one has perished."
Ela echoed his sentiment.
"Of course you are correct," Avona said. "If we have agreed on her, then that is enough. We can make it official in the meeting following Azad's punishment."
"Agreed," Cyrus said, and it might have been the only thing he agreed with so far.
"We also need to discuss the situation with the Dryn Mar," Avona said, looking directly at Cyrus.
It's not personal, he reminded himself as he leaned forward.
"What about them?"
"Firstly, how is Moana?"
Taleb had saved her.
When he dove for the edge, he had used his own Drycana to launch vine-like tendrils from his hand. They had snaked around Moana's arm, catching her, though it had nearly pulled Taleb off the Drop Rock in the process. Azad had noticed him struggling, and pulled them both up.
Cyrus almost cracked a smile as he thought of it. Azad's plan had originally been to drop them off the edge, and instead he had pulled them up from it. Any thoughts of happiness faded as he realized that now, Azad would be the one to be dropped instead.
"She's alive, and will be well in time it looks like."
Mady, Lyka, Alak and Bryne were all dead, however, although he doubted anyone mourned the loss of Mady.
"That is good news. With their ship gone they are stuck here. They will remain under your care and oversight. We now know why Azad didn't want them relocated to the surface, and I propose we revisit that possibility. Having them inside the Crystifice is too dangerous, obviously."
More logic that Cyrus couldn't argue against, and the abundance of it was beginning to wear on him. He knew that it was sound logic, though. He'd come to realize himself that the Dryn Mar could never be integrated, and he had no desire to keep them as unending prisoners. At least on the surface, they may be able to make a life for themselves.
"Ideally, as soon as possible," Avona replied.
"What of Kanin and Ada?"
Kanin's blast had been strong, nearly knocking him unconscious, and he was still quite weak from expending his Drycana.
Ada's had been stronger.
Releasing her Drycana to save Azad, and Kanin, had nearly killed her. Even now, she remained comatose. Cyrus hadn't told Kanin that there were people on the Skyland with talents that could cure her. He still hoped to work something out, somehow, but now wasn't the time.
"They go as well," Avona said softly, but firmly.
"No," Cyrus said. "No, they can integrate."
"Cyrus," Ela said softly. "It's better if they go."
"I understand your position, Cyrus, but I have to agree," Berry said gently.
That was it, then.
Cyrus could petition for a decision to be postponed until the new Directors were able to weigh in, but he didn't believe it would change anything.
"Fine. The others will go tomorrow, but Kanin and Ada stay until they are well."
Avona gave a slight nod. "As you wish. Let us adjourn until tomorrow, and reconvene with our new Directors present."
On the floor of her private room, inside the Hall of Physicians, Avona lay on her back and stared at the faceted ceiling, lost in thought. Beneath her, the cow hides that made up her bed were neatly set. Presently, she had no physical contact with the Crystifice, cutting her off from all but the most powerfully talented members of society.
Such a fragile thing.
The very reason the Avol Heraz dedicated their lives to preserving and protecting it, and under her leadership, the Avol Heraz had very nearly failed.
Berry had discovered the history and truth of magic. Even the name of the Avol Heraz had been discovered, though Berry thought it was a single person, thankfully. Azad had cultivated a secret love affair for a decade, and even had a freeborn child!
She clenched the hides in tight fists as a wave of anger rolled through her.
Love was such an ugly, messy emotion. It made people do irrational things.
Avona rose to her feet and began to quickly pace, careful to stay on the hides but needing to burn off some of the emotions welling inside her.
The Avol Heraz had two missions: keep any knowledge of Heraz and magic buried, and remove any threats to the current societal structure.
She was the leader of the Avol Heraz, and under her leadership, both of those had almost happened.
Of course, no one before her had ever dealt with an event such as the arrival of the Dryn Mar, she reminded herself. And, although things had moved very quickly, far more so than she had expected, she had managed to successfully steer the outcomes for the good of Bron Nasaal.
Things were moving in the right direction, now.
She stopped pacing.
Barash Katan was dead, thanks to her not so gently nudging him into the path of the oncoming Mady. Narrow thing, that. Had she not been merely following, instead of Interfaced as well, she wouldn't have seen the charging Dryn Mar's approach. With Barash gone, provided she removed any contact between herself and the Crystifice, she had eliminated the only person talented enough to spy on her.
A smile toucher her lips.
Azad would soon be dead, along with his child and mate. She had no intention of sparing any of them. His treason was inexcusable, and the child too great a threat.
The smile widened a bit.
As for Azad's lover, Avona knew she would prove to be too hostile to rehabilitate.
Of course, she didn't know that at all, but she would say she did, in that special way that conveyed she had intrinsically gained the knowledge through her talent. With the resources of the Avol Heraz, she could guarantee it happened too, by subtly engineering the woman's emotions towards violent rage.
The smile blossomed into a devious grin.
Cyrus was clearly dealing with issues related to the incident on the Drop Rock. Deeply emotional issues, the kind that could eat someone up. It would be very tragic when he developed Canker Brain.
The grin became a gleeful giggle.
That left Ela, but Avona was quite certain that the death of Cyrus would break the love-struck Director. If not, she would find something that did.
She was drawn from her thoughts by a voice at the entrance to her room asking, "May I enter?"
"Yes, of course," she replied hastily, waving him onto the hides so that he too was physically disconnected from the Crystifice. She had been expecting this visit from her second in command, and was eager to share her news with him.
"How did the meeting go?"
"It couldn't have gone better, actually. Azad will be dropped, along with his son. The woman he loved will be unwilling to integrate, we'll be sure of that."
"Camy Pry will be the new Director of Resource Management, which will bring the number of Avol Heraz in the Council to two."
The man nodded approvingly. "And the Dryn Mar?"
"The Dryn Mar will be exiled to the surface, and," she bit her finger playfully and laughed, "once your talents pass Canker Brain on to Cyrus, Camy will declare him no longer a valuable resource. I will propose passing his responsibilities on to Camy, which will eliminate him and his position. The council will be ours, and order restored to Bron Nasaal."
"And what of Barath Katanth pothithion?"
"I almost forgot," she exclaimed, the devious grin returning to her face. "Congratulations on your promotion, Director Chax Melo."
A/N: This concludes Shattered Fortress II - thanks so much for reading! Shattered Fortress III is out now! A very special thanks to those who have stuck with me throughout the whole process of these stories - Angry Ferrets and alltheeagles.
v 1.21 - Updated 12/2/17 - updated the author's note