The residence of the Source and Shield Service was unimpressive in appearance, a plain, large square of a building. Simple in style, drab in material, anyone’s eye would scan right past it. It was boring and forgettable.
But to me, it was beautiful. I had been away from it for over a year. I couldn’t wait to get settled back within it. And it seemed to me that the carriage we had rented was taking its own sweet time to draw up before the building and come to a complete stop. Once it had, Taro and I leapt out with our bags, and I thought about kissing the ground.
“All we need are fires!” Taro announced as he kicked open the front door to the residence.
I looked at him and couldn’t help grinning. He was healthy and relaxed, his black eyes practically glowing, his black hair mussed by a hard day of travel. It was good to see him finally back to himself. While he had been steadily improving in body and disposition since we’d returned to the mainland a few months earlier, I realized just then that he still hadn’t regained his original buoyancy. Not until we’d gotten home.
“Aye, we certainly do.” I, of course, had no idea what his words meant. Shintaro Karish was, in many ways, the most stereotypical Source I’d ever met, which meant that at times he was compelled to make incomprehensible statements. I was a Shield, the fairly average Dunleavy Mallorough, which meant I was very sensible, and knew when not to bother twisting my brain trying to figure out the meaning of my Source’s words.
Besides, all I needed to know right then was that his words were probably expressing his joy in being home. A joy I shared. The Triple S residence in High Scape and the Shield
Academy in Shidonee’s Gap were the only homes I’d ever known. Well, the only ones I remembered. I had spent seventeen years in the Academy, and then had been sent straight to High Scape. In the three years that my official residence had been the Triple S residence of High Scape, I’d spent more time away from it than in it. Still, it felt like a proper home, a place I belonged, and a place I had the right to bar others from entering. That was all a home was, really.
“It’s probably too much to expect that any of the others are in,” Taro commented, and he carried both of our bags into the foyer.
He wouldn’t let me carry my own bag, unless I wanted to get into an argument over it, which I rarely did. Sometimes I just grabbed my bag and we got into a tugging match, which made me feel ridiculous, so I would let go. Taro, of course, didn’t look ridiculous. Just patient and lordly. He was good at that, damn him.
Seven Pairs were needed to keep High Scape stable. It was one of the hottest sites in the world, constantly barraged with earthquakes and tornadoes and other natural events that would normally tear down the buildings, bury the crops, and decimate the population. Sources were born with the ability to channel the power of these natural disasters and keep the land stable. Shields were born with the ability to make sure Sources weren’t killed by the forces that swirled through and around them.
I was a Shield, Taro was my Source. All we were supposed to do was keep High Scape calm. But when Taro had been abducted by Stevan Creol, I’d found myself playing amateur Runner trying to find him, with an incompetence that made me cringe every time I thought of it.
Stevan Creol had been a Source with a lot of anger he didn’t keep nearly repressed enough. He had been taught how to prevent disasters while in the Source Academy, just like every other Source, but once he was released from the academy he had discovered how to create natural disasters, something no one had ever thought of doing, because why would they? He had been using that perversion of a skill to try to destroy High Scape as a means of expressing his frustration with his lot in life. During his captivity, Taro had picked up the same skill, because Creol had liked to show off and Taro had eyes. It had turned out to be a handy talent, one Taro had already used more times than I liked.
I was the one who had figured out how to kill Creol while he was attacking High Scape. I had done it by manipulating his shields while he channeled. Words couldn’t describe how very uncomfortable I was with that. I didn’t know whether the fact that no one other than Taro knew about it made me feel better or worse. I had no desire to admit to my actions and face the consequences. We wouldn’t be executed nor placed in prison, Pairs were considered too valuable to be unrecoverably destroyed, but we could be sent to a cold site for the rest of our lives, where no one needed nor respected our talents. It would be a waste, and it would be hell.
Yet shouldn’t I be punished for killing someone? How could something like that just pass away, like it had never happened? Was there anything I could do to make up for that?
I thought about it a lot. Good ideas never came to me.
After that mess, we’d had very little time in High Scape before Empress Constia, unhappy with the quality of her son and heir, had sent Taro and I to the remote southern island of Flatwell to search for the descendants of her exiled sister. It was Taro who was wanted for the job, for my illustrious Source had first managed to catch Her Majesty’s eye and then earn her trust. I was just dragged along to make travel more comfortable for Taro, whatever that was supposed to mean.
I was fully justified in resenting the Empress for this folly. We were a Pair, and we had responsibilities. To pull us off our roster for personal use was an abuse of her position. I didn’t care why she had felt Taro was the only person she could trust with such a delicate task, she had unlimited wealth and ultimate power. She could have sent anyone. She should have sent someone better suited to the task. She could have paid them enough that they would have done the job and kept her secrets.
What made the whole situation even worse was that the one descendant we found, Aryne, was not to the royal taste. Not properly educated, Her Majesty declared, and lacking that certain quality that every ruler needed. Apparently, being clever and resilient didn’t mean much.
Fortunately, we hadn’t told Aryne she had the potential to be the future ruler of our world. Even more fortunately, she was a Source. So she’d had a place to go when her great aunt hadn’t wanted her. The Source Academy.
That was one good thing had come out of that ridiculous trip. Aryne had gotten out of a situation of ignorance and abuse, and was on her way to a much better life. Provided she hadn’t run away from the Academy yet.
Now we were finally home. Perhaps, after disappointing just everyone who had ever expected more from us, we would be left alone to do what we were supposed to do. Be a Pair. Channel and shield.
“Do you think our rooms are still ours?” Taro asked.
“Why wouldn’t they be?”
“They might have brought in another Pair to replace us.”
I stared at him, shocked. I had never thought of that. “They wouldn’t do that.”
“We’ve been gone a long time, Lee,” he said. “And we’ve been gone a lot. A volatile place like High Scape, maybe they need a Pair that’s not unreliable.”
We weren’t unreliable. Things outside of our control kept pulling us off the roster. “They’d better not.”
That didn’t come out quite the way I’d meant.
Ben Veritas stepped into the corridor from the kitchen. “Source Karish, Shield Mallorough, welcome home.” He reached out to take the bags from Taro, who eased them out of reach. Ben was a regular, neither a Shield nor a Source, of late middle age, retained by the Triple S to clean up after us and make our meals. I found him disturbing, though I wasn’t sure why. There had been people at the Academy who prepared our meals and cleaned up after us, usually Shields who had been through the Matching ceremonies for decades and hadn’t managed to bond to a Source. They hadn’t disturbed me at all. There was just something in Ben’s manner, like he was watching us more closely than he should. “You should have sent word ahead of your arrival. I would have had a hot meal ready for you.”
“Optimism is despised by nature,” said Taro. “Besides, we’re going out to eat.”
“We are?” I asked. It was the first I’d heard of it.
“We have to celebrate our return. Delicacies excellently prepared and accompanied by chilled goblets of the best wine. Brought to you on trays carried by handsome young men and women. Sometimes there’s music.”
I was starving. And one of the good things about eating in a tavern was the variety of possible dishes. I wasn’t sure I wanted to just sit at home, tired though I was. I wanted to really soak in High Scape again, walk down the streets, hear the familiar accents and turns of phrase, really feel that I was back. I’d missed it.
“I thought I heard you two.” Source Kyna Riley came clomping down the stairs. “Shintaro, Dunleavy, welcome home.”
“Kyna!” Taro crowed, dropping our bags and throwing his arms open and hugging Riley whether she liked it or not. Fortunately, Riley remembered Taro’s exuberance, and she accepted the embrace with only a roll of her eyes. “Tell me all the exciting things that have happened while we were gone.”
Ben silently picked up our bags and carried them upstairs.
“How can anyone exciting happen in your absence, Shintaro?” she asked, and there was the slightest bitter edge in her tone that informed me that all was not calm on her sea.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Giles and I have be transferred to Ice Ridge.”
“Ice Ridge,” I echoed. That had been a cold site, the last time I’d looked.
“A volcano erupted a few months ago and has been giving off little spurts ever since.”
“And they’re just sending a Pair now?” Once, I had had high respect for the Triple S council. I found myself becoming distressingly disenchanted. It wasn’t my fault. They kept stumbling into ludicrous incompetence.
Riley shrugged. “Ice Ridge isn’t important to anyone.”
Which may have been the cause of her bitterness. A transfer from High Scape to Ice Ridge was taking a big step down in prestige.
“They have the best oranges!” Taro protested.
They did, actually. “Was anyone hurt?” I asked.
“No lives lost, but a lot of structural damage, and they can’t rebuild with the ongoing events.”
I wondered why we hadn’t heard of this during our travels from Erstwhile. I would have thought that was the kind of news that would get around.
“We’re not the only ones being transferred,” Riley added. “Vera and Lauren left for Pink Rock a few weeks ago.”
This was disappointing. Triple S Pairs never stayed in one place for too long, but assignments usually lasted at least a few years. “Do you know who’s coming to replace them?”
“No one,” said Riley, “as far as I know.”
“High Scape’s been a lot calmer for the last year. Not quite cold, but, I don’t know, it might be on its way there. I haven’t channeled in weeks. So we don’t need as many Pairs.”
High Scape was known for its frequent turbulence. The population practically prided themselves on it. Certainly, hot spots and cold sites could switch designations, but usually it took decades. What could have caused such an abrupt change? Creol couldn’t have been responsible for all of the natural events in High Scape before his death. And I refused to believe that the half year the Reanists had spent sacrificing aristocrats to their gods had actually accomplished the stability they had claimed to seek. That was just ridiculous. “Do you know how many Pairs are going to be transferred?”
And if they had to send Pairs away, why couldn’t they send the annoying ones? Like Beatrice and Benedict? Or Wilberforce and Ladin?
I couldn’t help feeling oddly deflated. I’d had an image of what to expect from home. And that had included all the Pairs. Even the ones I didn’t like. I hated change.
Riley was looking at me with an expression of puzzlement. “Are you all right, Dunleavy?”
“You look different.”
That was probably the remnants of the southern sun. While I never got as brown as Taro, I’d turned a kind of golden beige. It made my hair even more blazingly red than usual, too. Those effects had faded a great deal during our journey home, but there was still a hint of additional color here and there. However, Riley wasn’t supposed to know where we’d gone, so I couldn’t tell her any of that. “Oh,” I said, because I was a witty person.
“There’s something different about your voice, too,” she added.
“I see,” I said. My voice sounded the same to me.
“We don’t go until next week,” said Riley, clearly giving up that line of conversation as a non-starter. “And the night before, those of us not on watch are going out to, I don’t know, celebrate or say farewell. Will you two go?”
Taro gently took her hand and bowed over it, kissing the back of it. “I am devastated that we will be losing you. If it does not conflict with my duties, I will surely be there to mourn your departure.”
I must have been smirking, because the look Riley sent me was slightly hostile. I straightened my mouth. “My apologies, Riley.” I had been laughing at Taro and his melodrama, not Riley. “Of course we will be there. I am very sorry to lose you.”
“Thank you.” Riley nodded. “I’m pleased you were able to be back before we left. I was worried we’d miss each other.” She headed off towards the kitchen.
Taro grinned at me, then, a particularly wicked grin that I had seen many times before. He grabbed my hand, and the next thing I knew, I was running up the stairs behind him. I ran behind him to his door, through his sitting room, and into his bedroom.
His bedroom. I had always avoided it. I never wanted anyone to expect to find me in his bedroom. I had never had any interest in knowing what was in it.
Well, I had never wanted to have any interest in it.
Now I was being dragged into it and I was smiling at the feeling of wickedness it engendered. I was going to have sex with the Stallion of the Triple S in the Stallion’s bedroom.
He hated that nickname, so I didn’t use it unless I wanted to tease him, but it wasn’t one I’d come up with. I wouldn’t, it was too lurid for my taste. But he was known for sleeping with everything on two legs, though he claimed the numbers of rumor were highly exaggerated.
Taro closed the door and immediately curled his arms around my waist. “You have no idea how many times I imagined you in here,” he said, just before he kissed me.
I had lost all common sense, or sense of self-preservation, when it came to Taro. I’d fallen in love with him. With my own Source. One of the most stupid things I could ever have done.
The regulars liked to think of a Pair feeling nothing but everlasting love for each other. That assumption seemed to be supported by the fact that when one partner died, the other followed into death. But in truth, for partners to fall in love with each other was a complication that could have disastrous repercussions. No one had figured out exactly how the bond really worked, but it did effect the emotions of the partners. Sometimes it put them into a form of harmony with each other, sometimes it brought out the worst in each other, and sometimes it created weird possessive and obsessive behavior. Falling in love made the latter all the more likely.
Which was why the instructors at the Shield Academy - and no doubt the Source Academy as well - drilled the lesson into our thick skulls again and again and again. Don’t sleep with your Source. Certainly, don’t fall in love with your Source. If you become unstable, you won’t be trusted to guard any of the prestigious sites, and you didn’t want to ruin your chances over something so fleeting and so stupid.
It had all sounded very logical to me. It had seemed even more logical after I was bonded to Lord Shintaro Karish, the Stallion of the Triple S, handsome and engaging and full of life. Aggravatingly handsome. Annoyingly engaging. Exhaustingly full of life. It would have been dangerous for someone like me to get sexually involved with someone like him, because I was of a nature to take things more seriously, and he was of a nature to cast a wide net over the world in his search for pleasure. I wasn’t sure I could remain mature and professional after he had moved on to new partners.
I still didn’t know if I could remain professional and mature once he was no longer interested in me. But it hadn’t taken me that long to come to want him, and he had seemed to want me too, and although I knew I would end up paying for it in the long run, the damage I was doing to our relationship by sticking to my principles, principles Taro didn’t agree with, could have lasted a lifetime. He had thought I was refusing him because I thought there was something wrong with him. If he had come to believe I thought him in any way inferior, we would have never recovered. It would have poisoned everything.
Besides, I wanted him. In a moment of clear self-indulgence, I had asked myself why I shouldn’t have him. And while I was leery of the turmoil I would feel once he made his waning interest clear to me, I didn’t at all regret the decision to enjoy him while I could. Maybe not the most sensible decisions, but the right one.
So we indulged in a thorough home-coming, bathed - together - and then headed out for supper in the most expensive tavern Taro knew of, to his surprised pleasure. “I’ll have you thoroughly corrupted yet,” he gloated.
“Corrupted?” I wouldn’t go that far. Perhaps he’d ruined me for other lovers, but that wasn’t his fault. He would be a hard act to follow.
“Before we were banished off to that damned island, you never would have consented to eating in a tavern like this.”
Shields and Sources weren’t required to pay for anything, as a sort of compensation for the fact that we weren’t paid for our services. That didn’t mean I felt we should always seek the most expensive of everything. We didn’t need it, and I couldn’t help feeling regulars would feel ill used if it became a habit. Still, “This is a special occasion.”
“Aye, sure. And the reason you agreed to stay at the Imperial when we first got back to Erstwhile?”
I shrugged. I had been very tired of living rough for a year, and not in the mood for an argument.
“Face it, I’m corrupting you,” he said. “Soon, you’ll be just like me.”
“Zaire forfend,” I muttered.
I ordered the buffalo broth, a dish unique to High Scape that I hadn’t realized I’d missed until I saw it written up on the menu board. And how could I have forgotten it? It teased the nose with heated spice and positively drowned the tongue in thick savory flavor, the meat so perfectly tender it practically melted in the mouth.
Gods, I’d missed home. I almost couldn’t believe I was actually there.
The food was wonderful, but the meal itself was not restful. Taro was well known in High Scape, despite the frequency and length of his absences. Every few moments, someone would stop to exchange greetings and chat for a bit. Taro would try to draw me into the conversations, but neither I nor his devotee of the moment were interested. I watched him laugh and smile, and I wondered which of these people he had already slept with, and which would succeed me.
I would not act foolish when I was replaced. I would not. I had some pride. In fact, if I had my way, I would know it was coming before he did.
After enjoying a light creamy dessert - oh, I had missed dessert! - we left the tavern and decided to stroll about High Scape to reacquaint ourselves with our post. It wasn’t necessary in order for us to do our jobs well, but I was anxious to see the city.
High Scape was unlike any city or settlement I had ever seen, and so far I’d seen more settlements than I’d expected to by my age. It was divided by three rivers into six sections, called quads by the residents who apparently lacked a clear understanding of basic mathematics. Each quad had its own hospitals and Runners Headquarters and government buildings. And each quad had its own character, largely influenced by the level of wealth enjoyed by its residents. The North quad had the wealthiest residents of High Scape, and that was where we were headed. I rarely went there, having little reason to, and it was interesting to see the perfectly cobbled streets, the large, clean buildings with so much space between them, and the many large and leafy trees. As it got dark, lighters lit street lamps, adding a nice glow to everything.
A loud hissing sound, followed by a sharp pop that seemed to shake the night air, jolted out of nowhere. The shock of it pushed my heart right into my throat. “What the hell was that?” Taro demanded, and he leapt over the short iron fence beside him. He didn’t immediately start running, as I had expected him to. “Ech!” he uttered. “Know what this is?”
I took a quick glance over the small field, seeing through the darkening air the scattering of small stone, iron and wooden posts. “It looks like an ash grove.” Where the ashes of the dead were buried in copper urns.
Taro shed his hesitancy and started running, presumably in the direction from which he thought the noise had come from. To me, it had seemed as though it had come from everywhere. I climbed over the fence with the plan of running after him.
But I took only two steps before having to halt. I felt something odd. Some kind of resonance. Or vibration. A quick look around gave no evidence of anything that could create such an uncomfortable sensation. It seemed to skitter underneath my skin. It was horrible.
“Hey!” I heard Taro shout, and I looked up to see his form sharply change direction.
“What the hell are you doing?” I called, and I got no answer. Why was my Source racing about in the dark? Chasing around after people was rarely a good idea under any circumstances. To do so in the dark was just begging for a disaster. One of us was sure to trip over one of the grove markers and break a leg.
“Hey!” Taro shouted again. “Stop running! That’s an order!”
An order? Taro was no one to be giving orders. But maybe regulars didn’t know that.
In the midst of running in the dark and trying not to fall and kill myself, I felt Taro’s mental protections, the personal inner shields that guarded his mind when he wasn’t channeling, drop down. That meant I had to raise mine around him. Which meant I had to stop running, because I wasn’t sure I could run and shield at the same time and I wasn’t insane enough to try. But really, what the hell was he doing? There were Pairs on duty. It was their job to settle any disasters, and they would resent us for stepping on their toes.
Almost immediately, though, I realized Taro wasn’t channeling a natural event. When he channeled normally, he opened himself to the forces causing the disaster, and they rushed through him. In this manner, a Source drained a disaster of its power and directed the forces in a harmless direction. But this time, he was pulling in selected forces, much fewer than usual, and his direction of them was far more precise than the raw power of a natural disaster normally allowed.
Taro was creating an event, not eliminating it. Damn it. I wished he would keep in mind that that was a skill he’d learned from a madman. It was unnatural to create disasters, and I didn’t know why he was doing it right then. There was no good reason for it.
There was nothing I could do, though, except shield him and keep him from killing himself. I’d yell at him after.
The ground trembled beneath my feet. Another sign that this was an artificial event. If it were real, I wouldn’t be able to feel any of the physical manifestations. Taro would be stopping it before it got that far.
I hated earthquakes. I hated any kind of natural event, really. I was never supposed to have to feel any. That was part of what being bonded meant.
At least the tremors weren’t very strong. No serious upheaval in the ground. None of the markers fell over. Nor did it last very long. The tremors faded away with nothing, as far as I could tell, being accomplished. I waited, ready to shield again. Maybe he would try something else.
Moments burned by with nothing happening. It was eerily quiet, and I couldn’t see anything. Zaire, this had been a stupid idea.
Then I heard, “Lee?”
And just like that, I was furious. “What the hell was that?” I demanded.
“There were people messing about,” he answered as he appeared from the darkness and trotted up beside me.
“I don’t know, but it probably had something to do with that racket we heard.”
“So you decided to run after them? To what purpose? What would you do with them once you caught them?” Other than get beaten black and blue, if they were doing something illegal. Though I had no reason to think they were doing anything illegal. Just because I wouldn’t imagine what anyone would be doing in an ash grove at night didn’t mean their behavior had to be nefarious. Maybe they were visiting the remains of a family member. I could imagine plenty of scenarios out of novels and plays where some exiled member of a family would feel compelled to visit the ashes of a loved one under the cover of darkness.
It was possible.
“I couldn’t do nothing,” he insisted.
“Were they hurting another person?”
“I couldn’t tell. I couldn’t see.”
He’d be able to tell. Any such victim would have been left behind, or would have run off in another direction. “I can see you risking our lives to help another person, but who cares about markers in an ash grove?”
“The families of those whose ashes are buried under the markers,” he chided, trying to shame me.
He was unsuccessful. It was stupid to risk one’s life for stone, no matter what the significance. “What was the point of the earthquake?”
“They weren’t stopping.”
“And did the earthquake stop them?” I knew damn well it hadn’t because, clearly, they weren’t there. “Wait, you didn’t bury them, did you?” Because he could do that, too, and that disturbed me as much as his other unnatural skills.
“No, I did not,” he snapped. “And no, it didn’t stop them. Whichever Pair was on duty was trying to channel the earthquake. I didn’t want to get into a battle for control over it. That could get messy.”
It could get stupid, was what it could get. What was he thinking?
“Did you see what they were doing?” Taro asked.
“I haven’t seen anything.” I was only taking his word that there had been people in the grove at all. For all I knew, there’d been nothing going on and we’d been running around like idiots for no reason.
“Let’s see if we can find what they were doing.” Taro seemed enthusiastic about the possibility of finding something weird.
I really didn’t care. I didn’t like this place. It felt very strange, and I just wanted to leave.
But something small and white, almost glowing in the darkness of the night, caught my eye. Frowning, I stared at it, and as my focus cleared, other white somethings appeared. As I drew closer I was able to see that they were set in a sort of pattern. They were candles, unlit, and they made a circle. There was a line drawn from candle to candle, barely perceptible in the grass, of a very pale powdery substance. The circle surrounded a marker. Dead center in the circle, a hole had been dug into the ground, and the marker had been uprooted.
I thought about stepping into the circle for about half an instant. Something about the whole scene made me very, very uncomfortable. Not uncomfortable in the “someone dug up someone’s ashes,” sort of way, thought that was disgusting enough. I felt jittery, like something inside me was screaming to run while something else within me was keeping me routed to the ground against my will. My heart was pounding, my breath was short, I thought I might have been sweating, and I could tell I was trembling.
It was probably time to give up on that ridiculous dream of mine, that I could ever be the cool, calm, unflappable Shield I had been trained to be.
And I sighed.
It was our first damn day back.