“You’ve been here for ten days,” the merchant laughed, wrapping my purchased bundle in faded muslin. A sapphire raw-edged in gold punctured his top lip, catching the midday sun and scattering cobalt shadow across his facial tattoos. I followed the line of markings with my eyes as they morphed from gentle ebbs and whirls of charcoal water at his cheekbones to inky flames along his jaw. Sand stuck to every inch of his clothing and caramel skin, much like a fine mist off a frothy wave, if there had been any moisture to be found. His stall was one of the most luxurious in the trading square: worn carpets of jade and butter yellow underfoot, a sort of lean-to with just enough space to stand, and the smell of books within the shade. “You must not dislike us so much, eh?”
It seemed every sentence ended in a drawled question in this country. In the first few days of my stop in Crenna, I’d tried to mimic the pattern to blend in, but it did little good; my soprano rang out too sharp to be local and too abrupt to be casual. But something in me enjoyed the way conversation was left open-ended with the merchants, as if the next sentence could go anywhere I pleased.
“Two more days, then I’ll be gone,” I smiled, pulling a sharpened blade from my bag to lay on the boards which served as his sales counter. “I’ll make you a deal. I won’t tell anyone of my fondness for a grumpy, Crenna book merchant if you won’t admit to missing a spoiled brat from Peck once I’m gone.”
A rich laugh barreled from the merchant’s chest as he looked over the knife. He had calm hands, steady with calloused palms, more tattoos staining the underside curve of his wrists.
“A child of the forest then, eh? I visited the vast woodland of Peck once when I was a young man of fifteen. The darkness did not suit me, for I love the sun too much. I confess, I hate to see you leave, you see? You have been a blessing in these past days for me, no? This…this will feed my family for months,” he said, cradling the knife in between his hands. A grin was spreading across his face, slowly like warming syrup, leaving charming dimples in their wake.
“You’ll have a full belly tonight while your children dance at your feet. And I’ll be able to read a new book by shiplight. Seems more than fair, my friend. Maybe I’ll see you before I go.”
Touching my hand to his elbow, I turned to go but stopped short at the sight of a man at the far end of the market square. His gait was unhurried, large steps lazily leading him between vials of flower water and hanging aloe pots. An ivory scar ran the length of his neck, exposed at his open collar beneath his chin to the tip of his sternum. Even dressed in unfamiliar Crenna clothing, he seemed at ease with himself. Effortlessly, he tossed three oranges into the air before him to juggle as shy children watched behind the closest beaded curtain.
“Something wrong, brat from Peck?”
The merchant’s voice was a dull ring at my back, a steady hand between my shoulder blades turning me again toward the book stall. I felt the full weight of his concern hit me in the chest as I gazed upward into crinkled eyebrows and chestnut eyes.
“That man,” I murmured, trying to lift my hand which had suddenly become heavy as lead at my side, “that man can’t see me here.”
Without bothering to eye the square, the merchant tugged me behind the lilting stall of bound paper, leather satchels, and feathered quills. Gently he removed the wrap around his head and placed it between my shaking hands.
“Cover yourself, little forest girl,” his voice lulled, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips. “I have seen you fight bigger men, yes?”
Something in my eyes must’ve silenced the humor he kindled hoping to calm me; I felt his hot breath come faster against my cheeks, all laughter in his voice gone like a smothered flame in the tight space. The merchant had seen me fight bigger men, yes, but fighting this man was not my biggest concern. This man was more deadly than any of the petty thugs I’d scuffled with over stolen coin or spilled wine. Fear rose unbidden at the edges of my skin. No, fighting him wouldn’t solve anything, but him spotting me would be the end of it. Sighing, I knotted my hair at the base of my neck and began twisting the silk to shield my onyx hair. My fingers were clumsy in haste and, with a nettled breath, the merchant began weaving it for me til it stood high above the crest of my skull. Eyeing me, he nodded before tucking the loose end amongst the folds.
“I suppose the closest thing a girl from Peck would know to a head wrap would be a bird’s nest in her hair, no?”
Grabbing the merchant into a fumbling hug, I whispered my thanks between hot tears. A promise to see him again died on my lips, my heart knowing full well I would never return to Crenna. Crenna with its beds of spicy rice at every meal and warm, red stone under my feet each morning. The sounds of the busy market echoing out into the oceans of sand. Rusty sunrises from cactus-garden rooftops. Kind women with toddlers hugging their tanned legs, pointing out directions to the nearest public fountain, in dresses the color of the lilacs which grew outside my father’s house when I was a child myself. Crenna. The first place I’d ever lingered more than a few days on my endless nomadic trek since abandoning my home.
“Be safe,” the merchant said into my ear, releasing me from his arms with a subtle push toward the back alley.
Nodding, I fled.
A steady jog, with my nose to the ground, rewarded me with safe passage out of the market square and into the open city space filled with parked ships and restless horses. The smell of baking metal and equine sweat was comforting compared to the peppery, citrus fragrance of the market. I kept the wrap on my head until I had stepped into the privacy of my own ship, the hull’s ventilation cool on my sweaty skin and ticking away with messages from Zenith.
“Zenith,” I called, untwisting the silk and tucking it away on one of the bay’s shelves, “we have to go. Now.”
A bass hum along the walls and beneath my feet was enough to tell me she was awake and listening. Zenith spoke only when necessary, never one for idle chatter. Lights flickered into awareness as I closed the door and made my way to the cockpit. Crenna lay before me, undisturbed red dirt and native people milling about the outer walls selling barrels of agave nectar or bone jewelry. Preparing to leave in such a hurry unsettled my stomach, an irritated tug I was unfamiliar with.
“Are we expecting guests?”
Zenith’s voice was the rich alto of a natural born singer, melodious within its crescendos and dives in pitch. It filled the ship like a caress, filtering in through every open space of audio. My father once told me he had designed her to be comforting to the ear, especially in moments of crisis. After so many years of travelling with only her voice to accompany me, I’d gotten used to the fact Zenith sounded eerily similar to my mother.
“Oh, Great One, thank you for gracing me with your presence,” I sassed. “Get us online and I’ll explain when we’re in the air.”
A purr lit the screens under my hands with neon buttons while a film drifted across the glass in front of me, clouding my view of Crenna’s capital market. Bulletproof coating – the best money could buy blackmarket. I could hear Zenith expand her artificial, directive fingers room by room as little sounds filled the ship: the loose panel clinking against the back of the kitchen sink, boxes of shotgun shells rattling in the hold under my boots, and then footsteps.
Lazy, slow footsteps on the floor of my ship.
In seconds, I had drawn the pistol from the waistband of my jeans, and aimed toward the approaching tread.
“Thanks, Zenith,” I mumbled, before yelling toward the unwanted visitor: “I will shoot you.”
Two raised hands filled the doorway at my threat, one clutching an orange the shade of a mountain marigold. Rolled linen sleeves began at corded forearms to reach around solid biceps, meeting crossways at an open collar.
“Still charming the local A.I., I see,” I snapped, flipping off the gun’s safety. “Zenith, you should really learn better taste in men.”
Static danced between my feet, a warning from Zenith that did little to calm my raging temper as the man moved to stand at full height behind the co-pilot’s chair. Hair the color of stripped copper, bright under the neon side panel blinking away at Zenith’s rapid “heartbeat”, and eyes as dark as graphite met mine. He filled the cockpit with tense energy, radiating off him in ripples, while a contradictory smugness masked his face.
“Wipe that smirk off your face,” I growled, gritting my teeth. “Zenith may approve of you boarding this ship but I, the one with the gun, do not.”
My heart faltered when he released the conceited mask, inhaling a breath that shook his frame. Sorrow had chiseled his face into cold stone, a sort of aging which hadn’t been there six months prior.What I had once known as a handsome jester’s features, constantly laughing or teasing in flirtation, had vanished. I knew, without having to ask, this was what he truly looked like under all his magic at changing faces.
“Dear God, Liam.”
He grimaced before he could stop himself, his hands falling to the back of the leather pilot seat between us. Several seconds passed before he spoke, even then his voice still a hush in the whir of Zenith’s noise pool.
“I didn’t come here to take you back to him. I swear it. So many things have happened, I…I don’t even know where to start but I promise you, I’m not here to hurt you, Fallon.”
The way my name tip-toed across his mouth was a stab low in my gut. His voice was gravel and chalk, but I knew the way it could scrape soft across his vocal chords when he laughed. I knew the way it felt under my fingertips when he said my name. How the scar, glaring in the ship’s low light, was always warm to the touch.
Gesturing with the gun, I allowed him to sit, followed by Zenith’s satisfied rumble through the closest panels.
“Stop sighing like a lovesick teenager and make yourself useful, you floozy. Check him over.”
“I’ll be thorough. I did ask, you know? If we were expecting guests. If you would’ve just listened to me, I could have explained we had another person aboard,” Zenith cheeked at my directive, scanning red beams over Liam’s still form. I remained standing, holding the gun aimed at his chest, not willing to take any chances at being caught off guard. His eyes tangled with mine from under maroon colored lashes and, for a moment, my anger felt useless. Reckless. Unforgiving. He remained calm as Zenith studied his physical state, searching for any wounds. No broken bones, no fever. A checklist of conditions later, all well, I asked him:
“If you’re not here to bring me back, why are you here?”
I expected wild stories. Fiction. Something he could grasp on to to make me believe he was there for the greater good. A wall was up around me, as thick as brickstone, yet his face remained utterly unmasked.
“Fallon, please,” Liam hissed, rubbing closed eyes with his fingertips. He half-snarled in my direction before tossing the orange unceremoniously into the opposite bucket seat. “Please put the gun away and just listen to me. There’s something you need to understand.”
A cool rush of air spiraled around my neck, the scent of firewood and spiced rum muddying the space between us like Liam’s own personal calling card. He smelled like home, even hundreds of miles away from Peck in a country completely void of foggy mornings over pine or crisp lakes with water as blue as lapis lazuli.
“You bastard,” I groaned, lowering the gun.
Safety on, holster, walk away, I told myself. Don’t look at him.
Zenith guided my steps away from Liam, light by light, until I reached the mosquito net canopy and parachute bedding. Everything was as I had left it, pillows stacked at odd angles where I’d stretched out across them and the fan blades whirring a steady rhythm. I felt him without hearing him at the doorway:
“I could’ve killed you three times,” he stated, staring at me with more heat than the Crenna sun outside my ship. “What are you thinking? What if I was actually the bastard you accuse me of being?”
“Zenith,” I shouted, rolling my eyes. “Let’s go.”
Without another word, the ship ignited to life. Hovering for only a matter of minutes then lifting us gently into the sky as easy as breathing. My ears popped, a slight squeeze of pressure, as I collapsed onto the bed.
Liam’s frame filled the doorway, turned at an angle to watch us rise from Crenna’s surface out my bedroom window. Zenith’s light haloed his hair and cast his bulky shadow toward my feet.
“Not trying to push my luck here but are you gonna dump me off in space like you did to my stuff when we broke up in high school?”
The carelessness in his voice prodded a small chuckle from my throat. Still partly jester then, I thought. I kicked off my boots, two solid thunks connecting with the far wall without knocking any of the pictures down. My head pounded from the expulsion of all the adrenaline I’d been carrying and my shoulders ached.
“Here’s how I see it. If you were here to take me back, you would have hidden your face. You wouldn’t have come as yourself, that would be reckless, and you are not reckless. I’m choosing to believe you have ulterior motives. You’ve got two choices, Liam. One – you lie to me and I turn you in for bounty at the nearest Military Station. I have no doubt by now, if you truly aren’t here to take me back, that my sister has a price on your head. Guarantee it’s a big one. Two – you tell me the truth and Zenith and I make you dinner.”
Silence felt tangible between us as I sized up his reaction, waiting for a response.
“Your sister doesn’t have a bounty on my head,” he said softly, brushing a hand through his hair. A move I knew well enough – a nervous tick but not a lying tick.
He wasn’t lying.
“There’s no way my sister released you from service,” I said, sitting up straight. “You were her second. You and your chameleon skin, you’re too valuable, Liam. What happened?”
I rose, standing within a foot of him, searching the lines of his real face for some truth. When I found it, my heart stopped.
“She’s dead, isn’t he?”
My voice sounded like tin in the rain, metallic and ringing against the metal walls.
“Fallon,” he repeated, reaching to touch my face. “No one is going to hurt you.”
Something at the base of my spine prickled, fight-or-flight ruffling its feathers. Liam’s hand cradled my face with a tender softness, his forehead crashing against mine.
“Two years,” his voice quaked. “I don’t want you to hate me anymore, Fal.”
“Rebels?” I found myself asking, needing to know, even as I lowered my face into Liam’s palm. Needing confirmation that everything I’d worked for was worth it. Country to country, nights spent alone, always on the run, always searching.
A nod was all I got before Liam’s mouth traced the curve of my ear.
“The group you gathered in Halta. They were smart, patient. Lead by a man who goes by Asher. Do you remember him?”
Halta, with its flowing vines of hibiscus and moss covered walls. Women with hair the color of honey, holding the highest government seats generation after generation. Beauty came with talons in Halta, like a blade forged alongside glass. And the men? Men tall as oaks and wise in the ways of death. The planet of assassins.
“I do,” I said, leaning into the doorframe, into Liam. Shock traversed my system like liquid fire. I’m free, I’m free, my heart sang. Liam is free, my heart breathed. “Dear God. I can’t believe they did it. I can’t believe any of this. Yes, yes I remember him.”
Liam’s hands shifted, finding the undersides of my rib cage, his fingers warm through my shirt. Two years seemed to dissolve at his touch, like we’d never known a day apart. All the anger I’d felt at seeing him unexpectedly felt like wasted emotion. He’d been as trapped at Peck in my sister’s usage as I had been wandering space searching for a way home.
“Did he steal your heart, Fallon? This Asher?”
There was fear on Liam’s mouth now, his hands gripping the fabric of my shirt at my hips. Cold air kissed the skin above my jeans as he leaned back to look into my eyes.
“Is that what this is all about – have I lost you?”
His words, so carefully placed between us like chess pieces, shattered the last of my resolve.