I want to beg the doctor-priest to keep the results a secret. But loyal though he is to me, we both know no one would believe him. Everyone knows my blood is as pure as a queen's. Even I thought I would produce at least one queened baby. But two?

I look at my baby girls, and my heart breaks.

"Tell everyone," I whisper, "That only one girl lit up the Dome Ring."

The girls are fraternal twins. Both made the Dome Ring's emerald head flash, but since their genetic material is not identical, Queen Kalia could believe it if told only one girl was eligible to be queen. Queen Kalia thinks she has me conquered—surely she will not insist on a re-test with a different doctor-priest, O gods, please, please please!

I am frightened by my unexpected hope. The part of me that died when they killed my first child and her serf father resists the quickening in my blood. But I cannot help it. Despair is not the cloak I choose to wear, and so my mind spins with possibilities. Only one girl will be claimed by Queen Kalia. The other girl will be left alone, and I will be able to raise her against Queen Kalia, or even have her sent away so that at the right moment…

I look at the doctor-priest. "Do you understand?" I ask.

"Yes," he replies, simply, firmly. Then he gestures. "Which daughter?"

Excerpt from The Journal of the Lost Princess, Part I

Written 765 years after the Crash Landing

Chapter 8:

"Sukren! Sukren!"

Sukren turned towards the voice. The pre-dawn light stretched so thinly over the Xhota urb that it took him a moment to realize it was Mayah who was racing towards him through the empty streets. Mayah, with her hair blown to the side by the gales buffeting through the branches of the bio-dome.

Of all the emotions clamoring inside him, joy and dread were the strongest. Mayah's safe! Mayah's here! Part of his heart cried out in relief. Now turn away from her! The part loyal to Lady Nari insisted.

Later, I'll do it later, Sukren told the second voice. He got to his feet. Mayah was almost upon him. He started when he realized that most of her hair had been cut away. Were those bangs?

"What happened to your hair?" he asked. "And where are your glasses?" He reached to help pull a rank fishnet off her back and onto the ground. As soon as Mayah had wiggled out of it, she looked up at Sukren, beaming. Sukren tried and failed to suppress a smile. He held his hand out to Mayah, and stepped backwards in surprise when she flung herself into his arms. Laughing, Sukren returned Mayah's embrace, and didn't let go until she did.

She seemed softer, somehow. Like an edge had been filed down, a splinter removed from within. Something in her upturned face reminded him so much of when she was young that Sukren had to turn away, his chest filled with something so fierce and powerful that it frightened him.

"Vek is hurt," Mayah said. They both looked down the street, where Vek was coming up a few paces behind. "He got his finger cut off in the Temple. I made him drink a lot of water like you said, but I think it already got infected."

"I'll take a look at it. You go ahead inside. Petrika is cooking breakfast. I bet you're hungry, right?"

"Yes," Mayah said instantly, which made Sukren smile again, but to his surprise, when he began making his way past the close-curtained stalls to Vek, Mayah followed him. Reaching for his hand, she said, "I'll help too."

#

"Bring him up this way," Petrika said. Sukren was grateful to her. She had pulled down the ladder from the second floor of her Xhota hut and was laying blankets down in a corner of the bare room. Light from the rising sun peeked through the two bioplastic windows in the ceiling.

The smell of bean paste stew wafted up from the ground floor. Mayah turned towards it, but Sukren glanced at Vek. The boy's face was withdrawn and tight with pain.

"I'm going to take a look at Vek's hand now," Sukren said to Mayah. "Go ahead downstairs with Petrika and eat."

Mayah's eyes lit up. But then she hesitated. "You won't need help? Should I bring food up to you and Vek first?"

"No, it's all right," Sukren said, wondering a little at Mayah's eagerness to return. It wasn't like Mayah to divide her attention between food and people. "After you eat, you can bring up a bowl for Vek, if you like."

"I'll do that," she said brightly. Once she had followed Petrika down the ladder, Sukren pulled out his new medicine kit and unwrapped the dressings around Vek's hand. When the final bandage came loose, Sukren grimaced. The skin around Vek's missing finger was red and swollen.

"You have a fever, don't you?" he said, reaching with his other hand to check Vek's forehead. "I'm going to lift your right arm, and check the lymph nodes under your armpit. I don't think the infection is too far gone because there isn't any pus, but I want to make sure. Can you tell me how this happened? Mayah said you got your finger cut off?"

"Ran into some Chenta in the Temple," Vek said, his eyes closed. "They saw Mayah so they called me a Rajas tail because I hadn't killed her yet. I tried to fight my way out. I smashed one of their hands, so they invoked the Machenta law of mercy and cut my finger off."

Sukren's eyes widened. "Did—did they hurt Mayah?"

"No. They left her alone."

Relief washed over Sukren. "When did this happen?" he asked, his fingers gently probing Vek's skin. Good, the nodes weren't too swollen.

"About two days ago."

"I'm going to wash your injury, and then we'll see if we can soak it in some warm salt water. I'll try to find some medicine for you to take as well."

Sukren removed a bioplastic bowl from his kit. He filled it with water and a chemical powder, then pulled Vek's hand into it, rubbing a scrub around his injury. Vek winced, pain filling his face. For a moment Sukren thought Vek was going to withdraw his hand from the solution, but he gritted his teeth and remained still.

"I know it hurts," Sukren said softly. "I'll let it soak soon."

There was the sound of someone climbing up the ladder. Mayah's head poked out a moment later. She had put her glasses back on. "Here's some soup!"

"Did you finish your bowl already?" Sukren asked.

"Yes."

"Give me Vek's bowl."

"No, I can do it."

Sukren looked at her.

"What?" Mayah asked, a note of defensiveness in her voice.

When Sukren answered, he spoke with pauses, wanting to be careful about his choice of words. "Are you… planning on… feeding it to him?"

Mayah blushed. Sukren held out his hands for Mayah to transfer the soup to him. When she pulled back, he gently pried the bowl away from her.

"Go back downstairs," Sukren said. He kept his voice flat. He had to start obeying Lady Nari at some point, and now was as good a time as any. "Wait there until I'm done."

Mayah nodded, her face still flushed. Her head disappeared as she went back down to the first floor. Sukren placed the bowl on the floor where its steaming contents wouldn't spill, and closed the trapdoor.

"She just wants to help," Vek said.

"Lady Nari has another assignment for you," Sukren responded. "For all of us here at the safe house."

"What is it?"

Sukren told him. Vek frowned when he had finished. "I don't like it. I don't think it's necessary."

"That's not for you and me to decide."

"No, you don't understand. I've talked to her enough these past few days. She's ready. She's really ready. She doesn't need to be rejected by us."

Sukren didn't reply. As much as he wanted to believe Vek, Lady Nari had given the order herself. Even if Sukren thought it was unnecessary, he didn't have the authority to override it.

"Let me soak your hand," Sukren finally said. "We'll talk about it later."

#

Two nights later, Sukren woke to find that the bioplastic sheet covering one of the hut's windows had come loose, permitting a breeze to sneak into the room. He got up, careful not to disturb the sleeping bodies on the floor around him, and reached upward to push the sheet into place. It took him several minutes to find the right angle. More than once he thought longingly of his room in Lost Technology. Although doctor-priests and regents had to apply for a weekly heat allowance, at least there was a heating system.

By the time he had finished, Sukren was thoroughly awakened by the cold and the activity. He paused to take in Vek in a corner to the right, next to Petrika, and Mayah to the left, all of them under skin blankets Petrika had gotten from the Cursed. Auroralight flashed into the room, onto Mayah's scrunched up face.

Now that she was asleep, Sukren could allow himself to smile, remembering how he used to tease her when she was young about how her face was always concentrated so furiously in her sleep. You must be dreaming about food, Sukren would say, infuriating little Mayah. She would stamp her bare feet on the ground and insist that Sukren stop teasing her.

A cough to his right caught Sukren's attention. He reached for the pitcher on the shelf above the doorway and handed it to Vek. It took Vek a moment before he was able to sit up and take the gourd from Sukren.

"I thought I would be better by now," Vek said, wiping the water from his mouth and handing the pitcher back to Sukren. "I feel fine, a lot better, but I keep coughing."

"It might be stress," Sukren said, putting the pitcher away. "It's not likely that the infection from your finger settled in your lungs. I don't think your immune system is that weak."

"Stress," Vek repeated. He gave a quiet laugh. Sukren glanced over his shoulder at Mayah curled up on her mat. She had changed back into her village suit, claiming it was more comfortable to sleep in. Maybe it was—she seemed fast asleep now, at any rate.

Sukren nudged Vek with his knee, and sat down when Vek shifted over. "How's your finger feeling?"

"I don't think my finger is feeling anything anymore," Vek responded with a grin. Sukren rolled his eyes. The boy was obviously fine.

"How's… how's it been with Mayah?" Vek asked after a moment.

Sukren knew that hidden in Vek's question was an apology. For the past two days Vek had feigned a weakness he did not have in order to avoid having to reject Mayah outright. He had refused to spend time with her, but had allowed Mayah to think it was because he was sick. Petrika, on the other hand, had no problem executing Lady Nari's orders. She was not friendly to Mayah, and Sukren knew Mayah noticed and disliked it.

But he also knew that Petrika was a stranger to Mayah. Mayah was annoyed, but not crushed by her. The burden of devastating Mayah had fallen onto Sukren's shoulders and his alone.

Sukren wasn't inclined to accept Vek's apology. "You know how it's been."

"I'm sorry. I just can't do it. Give me another day."

"You never liked Rajas before."

"I don't like them now."

"Then what's stopping you?"

Sukren knew he was taking his annoyance out on Vek. He was perfectly aware that Mayah was different from other princesses, albeit not by any effort of her own.

"Just… during this trip… getting to know her…"

Sukren looked at Vek, who avoided his gaze. Was there another reason Vek was reluctant to turn on Mayah? Had something happened during their trip together? Sukren paused. Yes, something had to have happened. Mayah was blushing every few seconds, and was finding any excuse to take care of Vek, to offer him food, to help re-dress his wound. It was unnerving. Sukren had been suspicious at first that Vek had intentionally initiated something, but it had become obvious rather quickly that Vek was oblivious to Mayah's attentions. Still, something had happened between Vek and Mayah on the trip. That was clear.

"What happened?" Sukren asked.

Vek looked down at his blanket. "We ran into a mobile checkpoint unit. You know how those go."

Sukren didn't let any emotion show on his face. "Did they hit Mayah?"

"Yes. They wouldn't have, they were angry at me because I was mouthing off to them, but then she spoke up and tried to stop them."

So that was what had happened. Mayah, probably already charmed by Vek—she was a lonely thirteen-year-old girl, after all—had fallen head first for the boy after enduring suffering alongside him. Sukren tamped down on the surge of anger that ran through him at the thought of Mayah getting harmed. He glanced at Vek, another question on his lips, but Vek didn't appear to want to share more. He had leaned backwards, and his eyes were closed.

"I really hate the Eenta," Vek said after a moment, his voice low. "I can't wait until the Free Serfs finally rise up and get rid of their sneering faces."

"Was it serf prods?"

"Yes."

"I've seen you take worse."

There was a pause. When Vek spoke again, his voice was tight. "I just wish she hadn't seen me like that. I didn't want that."

Silence filled the space between them. There was nothing Sukren could think of to say. What did one man say to another whose dignity had been stripped from him? The best thing Sukren could do was to avoid bearing witness to the act of humiliation, and yet here Vek was, displaying it for Sukren to see.

He reached out and touched Vek on the hand, just as he would Mayah. "The uprising is around the corner. Soon, nobody will even know what serf prods are."

A hint of a smile touched Vek's lips. "And now that we have the Dome Ring—"

"What?"

"I never told you? That's how Mayah's finger got hurt. When she put the Dome Ring on, little claws came out of it and shot into her skin. She had to scrape it off her finger."

"You have the Dome Ring?"

"Mayah does."

Sukren's heart was pounding. The words of the prophecy rang in his mind. Over the shelterbelt, The Rajas Daughter who is Promised, Must go. Over and to The Lake Tower, Her feet will tread. With the Ring of the Dome, Dripping in her hand.

Mayah had the Dome Ring. She had the Dome Ring.

And they were right by the shelterbelt.

Only a few nights ago Sukren had wondered whether it was possible for Mayah to follow the prophecy without being subject to Free Serf manipulation. He hadn't been able to think of a way. To believe in the Promised Daughter was to be a Free Serf. And to be a Free Serf meant to manipulate the Promised Daughter, to introduce insecurities into her psyche to make it easier to control her. The two causes had been married for longer than Sukren had been alive.

"Sukren? What's wrong?"

"Who else knows?" Sukren asked. "Who else knows Mayah has the Dome Ring?"

"Hanjan, maybe. Of Rice Post #4."

"Is he a Matterist?"

"Yes."

"Nobody else?"

"Hanjan's very closed-mouthed."

"Does Lady Nari know?"

"Maybe," said Vek. "If Hanjan's met with her by now, I'm sure he's told her. I was going to tell her when I saw her next, so even if Hanjan hasn't been able to meet with her yet, she'll know soon enough. Why?"

"Don't worry about it. Doctor-priest business. A new way of looking at the prophecies."

Vek shrugged. If he thought Sukren was lying, he didn't show it. Taking a deep breath, Sukren considered his next steps. He couldn't jump to any conclusions. He would have to re-read the Prophetess Darshana's oracles. And there was Lady Nari to consider. He knew Lady Nari wouldn't be persuaded to change her course of action regarding Mayah. Sukren would continue to reject Mayah, per Lady Nari's orders, at least for the next few days. Perhaps by then his research would reveal to him a way out…

Over the shelterbelt, The Rajas Daughter who is Promised, Must go. Over and to The Lake Tower, Her feet will tread. With the Ring of the Dome, Dripping in her hand.

#

In the end, it wasn't the oracles that persuaded Sukren, but Mayah herself.

"She's crying," Vek said to him. It was nearly half a week later. Sukren and Vek were sitting among piles of rubber mats on the first floor of Petrika's house. They were supposed to be helping customers while Petrika ran an errand.

"I can hear her," said Sukren.

Mayah's sobs filtered through the plastic-thatched roof above their heads. Sukren closed his eyes and leaned against one of the hut's columns. He could feel the hem of the drawn curtains whip against his skin as a sudden gust of wind blew through the Xhota urb.

"She's crying," Vek said again.

Sukren got to his feet. He pulled down the ladder that connected the stall to the second floor alcove.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm going to her."

Sukren could see relief and uneasiness warring in Vek's face. It was clear that on the one hand, he wanted Sukren to go up to comfort Mayah. On the other hand, Vek knew what Lady Nari's orders were.

"What are you going to say to her?" he asked.

"I'll make sure the prophecies are followed."

At that, Vek relaxed. Sukren climbed up the steps and pulled the ladder up after him. He knelt by Mayah and put his hand on her arm. The sound of her crying grew even louder.

"Come here," he said.

She responded as he had expected, by flinging herself into his embrace. Sukren held her for several minutes as she continued to weep. Her tears soaked a patch on his shirt. He said nothing. He knew Mayah would need silence to face what she was feeling. Even after she began drawing ragged, dry breaths of spent emotion, he waited for her to speak first.

"Sukren," she whispered.

"Yes?"

"Is it because I'm a Rajas?"

"What do you mean?"

"Is that why you don't like me anymore?"

Before Sukren could respond, Mayah was speaking again in a low, pleading whisper. "I'll try really hard not to be Rajas anymore. I promise I'll try!"

Sometimes decisions are made after seasons, years of agony. Other times they are discovered to have already been made. Sukren held Mayah closer to his chest, one hand cradling the back of her head. Enough is enough, he told himself, his heart breaking. I will not let Mayah spend a single second longer feeling like she has to prove herself to anyone.

This may be exactly where Lady Nari wants Mayah to be, but it's not where I want her to be.

Over the shelterbelt, The Rajas Daughter who is Promised, Must go. Over and to The Lake Tower, Her feet will tread. With the Ring of the Dome, Dripping in her hand.

They could do it. Cross over the shelterbelt, hide amongst the Gather's Children. The Free Serfs didn't need Mayah's presence to overthrow the Golden Castle. They needed her to be alive was all. Sukren would ensure that. He wouldn't be betraying the Free Serfs. He would be keeping Mayah safe. He wouldn't even need to tell Mayah that she was the Promised Daughter. He could still obey the bulk of Lady Nari's orders and keep Mayah away from harm, away from the manipulators, from those who wanted to string her out in an endless quest for approval and worth.

"Stay up here for the rest of the day," said Sukren. "Don't try to talk to Petrika or Vek. This evening, when I tell you to come down, bring everything with you."

"Are we going somewhere?"

He put a finger over her lips. "Trust me, Mayah," he whispered. "Just do as I say, and trust me."

#

"Where are we going?" Mayah asked. She glanced around the Xhota urb. The sunlight was fading, the curtains were being pulled shut. "Sukren, where are we going?"

"This way," he said.

Mayah coughed as a cart rolled past her, the wheels kicking up dust. She hurried after Sukren. He was leading her away from Stoneset Castle towards the shelterbelt. But why?

"Where are we going?" she asked again.

He motioned her closer to him. Mayah warily obeyed him. Something was wrong with Sukren. Treating her like he always had one day, ignoring her and snapping at her the next, then acting like he was about to give her some great gift. Was he going to turn on her again?

She stiffened when Sukren placed both his hands on her shoulders. His mouth brushed against her ear. "We're going to cross over the shelterbelt," he whispered. "I'll explain why later. Just stay calm and follow me."

Mayah jerked away from him. "The shelterbelt?"

"Shh!"

She could feel the eyes of other people on her. Sukren tugged on her arm. She stumbled after him, confused. Why would he be taking her across the shelterbelt?

"Sukren, I don't want to go. I want to go back to Vek."

"No, you don't."

That made Mayah angry. After weeks of unexplained absence on top of years of falsehoods, Sukren expected her to still accept his commands, just like that? She wasn't a little girl anymore. She had left a castle without papers. She had gone through the Temple. She had endured that mobile checkpoint unit. Couldn't Sukren see she wasn't the same princess as the one he had left behind in Lost Technology?

"You don't know anything about what I want," she snapped.

At that, Sukren stopped. Mayah ignored the people dodging around them to get back inside their homes before nightfall. The wind was picking up. She ignored that too. The dust, the last calls by the merchants, the rippling curtains, the smell of fish and fruit and bioplastic—it all faded into the distance.

"Mayah, don't do this."

"I'm not the one doing anything."

"I will explain everything."

"Like hell you will."

He grabbed Mayah's wrist. "I will."

"You never did before."

There it was. The source of Mayah's resentment and rage piercing through their pretense. How dare Sukren act like nothing had changed, when everything had? She had waited and waited since their reunion for Sukren to tell her why he had kept his entire life a secret from her. She had waited in vain. And now, without a single word of explanation, he wanted to exert his former authority over her? Who did the man think he was? Who did he think she was?

Sukren looked at her, and spoke with a mildness that shamed her. "Do you think I had any choice about that?"

Mayah bowed her head. It's because of Rajas rule, she tried to remind herself. That was what she had learned from Vek. Sukren hadn't been free. Sukren had been forced by Rajas rule to keep things secret from Mayah.

But recite to herself the words as she might, Mayah couldn't quite bring herself to believe them. She couldn't help but entertain a sneaking suspicion that Sukren had been free all along, that he had chosen to hide things from her because he had wanted to.

"I don't know," she said. "I don't know if you had a choice or not."

"Well, I didn't. Now come with me."

Anger flashed through her again, but long habit led her to obey. They hurried through the emptying streets. It wasn't until they were at the edge of the Xhota urb and the shelterbelt was in sight that Sukren stopped.

"We're going to climb through that gap there, see?"

"I see it."

"Good. I'll give you a boost."

"What about Vek?"

"What about him?"

Mayah glanced at Sukren. "When will we return to him?"

"I don't know."

Without meaning to, Mayah drew away from Sukren. "What do you mean, you don't know? How long are we going to be on the other side of the shelterbelt?"

"Not now, Mayah. We need to get across quickly before someone sees us."

"That side of the shelterbelt is dangerous," Mayah said loudly. "That's where the Cursed live."

"I know."

"And you're fine with that?"

"We don't have time for this. I told you. I will explain."

Mayah could feel a lump in the back of her throat, and pressure at her eyes. She would not cry. She would not let herself cry. It would fog up her glasses, and she didn't want that. Swallowing, Mayah took another step back. "I don't want to go with you."

"You don't have a choice."

Mayah pulled her arm out of Sukren's grasp. "I'm not going with you."

"Yes, you are."

"No, I'm not!"

"Mayah—"

"Get away from me!"

He reached for her again. "I'm doing this for you, please—"

"Liar!"

Sukren drew back. Mayah glared at him, her chest heaving. Liar, she thought. Liar, liar, liar!

The words ran together in a jumbled mess and still they went on, a protective beat against the pain in her heart. Liar liar liar liar liar liar—

Sukren had grabbed ahold of her again. She struggled against his grasp, but he was too strong. There was a sharp pricking sensation in her right arm, and Mayah felt her resistance melting as chemicals flooded through her body.

"You—you drug—"

"Shh," Sukren said. Mayah's body was limp now. She tried to move her hands but they refused to heed her. She could do nothing as Sukren pulled her onto his back. Even her eyelids felt heavy.

"Shh," she heard again. "Shh. It'll be all right. It'll all be all right."

No, Mayah thought as blackness pressed down on her. No. I won't forget this. I won't forget what you did to me. I won't forget that you lied to me. I don't care where you take me. I'll find a way to escape. I'll find a way back to Vek. To the Free Serfs. To overthrow Rajas rule. To find out. What you're hiding. To find out. The truth.

#

Over the shelterbelt,

The Rajas Daughter who is Promised,

Must go.

Over and to The Lake Tower,

Her feet will tread.

With the Ring of the Dome,

Dripping in her hand.


Due to lack of interest, I'm closing out this story on this site. If you want to read Part II: Lead Hunter, you can find it through my website www dot j-eves dot com. Thanks for reading!