So yeah, this is nearly done but all these read-through's take time--periods when I can be focused for a long time, not merely an hour here or there. Getting those chunks of time is the delay so this book won't be released before New Year's. I can sadly admit that with utter certainty now. It irks me no end, but I know the book will be better for holding it off until it's "ready for prime time." Speaking of slow but steady progress, what do you think of the cover art? Yet another revision (changed the foreground again). I like it better with each subtle change I make!
In the meantime, click on through if you don't care about spoilers or have been reading all along anyway, but be warned if spoilers bother you: MANY SPOILERS LIE AHEAD! For the brave and bold, 2600 new words lie ahead ^_^ Enjoy them all!
Seated in front of the fire inside the main tent, Shayla’s mind raced. She wanted to ask about Joshua’s obvious familiarity with the Seven Chiefs, but she was so tired of him and all of the other Outsiders. She wanted justice from those responsible for what happened to Raif but beyond that, she just didn’t care anymore about the Council or any of their problems. If she never saw another Outsider again, it would be too soon. It was time she remembered that she was Phoenician. Maybe that was why this had happened to Raif. Maybe the Seven Chiefs had planned his death to bring her back here, back where she belonged. If she asked anything, it would be for them to confirm Raif’s death had been for a reason, had served a purpose, was part of their Plan, not just part of some personal vendetta Dramond and Kindi had to hurt her.
She’d have to learn how to be Phoenician again, it wouldn’t come overnight, but she’d already told the Seven Chiefs about Charlie, about how she’d need time to teach him the Ways of the Phoenix. She’d only made one mistake, but it was a big one. She’d let too much of Problem 4368 fall under Joshua’s control. What had she been thinking?
It wasn’t part of anyone’s plans for Joshua to control the viability of Shayla’s future, of Charlie’s very existence. The Seven Chiefs had agreed to give her one year to teach him in their Ways before she brought him back here to face the Three Tests and receive their approval. She knew he’d pass any tests they put him to but she’d train him well. She’d refamiliarize herself with real life, leaving the Council and their Outsider ways behind her by living with Charlie and teaching him on a daily basis. The year of instruction would be a welcome change—after two years of even more welcome solitary existence she’d spend servicing his crèche to bring him to full term. She could manage that part on her own. It just wasn’t that complicated to service a crèche and Charlie had his own program of Orientations for the new body. She wouldn’t even need to run any psychological checks or intellectual evaluations. It would be like running a silent little black box in the corner. She hadn’t been alone for most of her life. Two years of aloneness would give her time to rediscover herself. She needed that time. She just needed to figure out where she could stash the crèche while she took that time for herself.
She didn’t trust Joshua to manage the process, not even as far as she could throw him. And she was fairly sure she could throw him pretty far despite how big and bulky he was. She’d only struggled to lift him onto that MedTable because she hadn’t wanted to do him damage. She wouldn’t mind doing him damage now. In fact, the more she thought about it now, the more she could just picture how easily and how far she could throw him and how much damage it would do.
She’d been staring into the fire but now glanced down at her left hand. The golden metal gleamed back at her in the firelight. She’d forgotten about that thing.
(Yes, it is me. You asked me not to speak, so I have not.)
(Then why are you bothering me now? )
(Because I cannot listen to your condemnations of Joshua and allow your misconceptions to go on uncorrected. He has been extremely helpful to me, even critical to the success of Problem 4368. He has also only had good intentions towards Brennan. He has never forced Brennan to do anything. I have monitored nearly all of Joshua’s interactions with Brennan and can confirm that Brennan is choosing to ally himself with Joshua of his own free will—and he is choosing to do so. Eagerly from what I can tell and as Joshua said to you. You are wrong in suspecting that he is stealing Brennan’s future—or mine.)
(Fine. If that’s true, then that’s fine. I’ll be happy for Brennan. I just want to hear it from him. In his own words.)
(And will you grant me the same right too choose?)
(My own future. If so, then I would choose to continue working with Joshua. His people—Cory in particular—have been put at my disposal and Cory has been an invaluable resource. Joshua has a wealth of knowledge and equipment I did not realize could be made available to me. He has put it all at my complete disposal without restrictions. In return he has asked for very little. In fact, I cannot identify any specific requests from him that could be said to be payment for the favors he has granted me. He has not infringed on any of your private data, nor has he attempted to do so.)
(I never thought he would.)
(Then why were you just thinking about removing my crèche from his facility prior to completion of the gestation period?)
She sighed. (Because I’m angry at him, Charlie. I don’t want him in my life. It’s not you, it’s him.)
(Then do not punish me for it.)
(I wasn’t. I—I’m sorry. You’re right. He has resources. We should use them but Charlie, I can finally see why Raif didn’t like Joshua.)
(He’s not trustworthy—and he keeps too many secrets. No one with that many secrets can be trusted, not with anything valuable. You’re extremely valuable to me, Charlie. You’re irreplaceable, and I don’t want to trust Joshua with your care and maintenance. It’d just be easier to just take the crèche somewhere secure until you’re done growing. I can service the crèche alone for the next two years. Even a Class One tech could do it.)
(The gestation period will not take two years, Shayla. Did you not understand the update from Joshua? I heard him tell you. Their procedures are far superior than the standard production line. With the new formula for growth accelerant that Cory has provided and by using their modified memory-installation process, I can complete modifications and gestation in a fraction of the time. I shall be removing the body from the crèche in approximately eight days.)
“A week?” She gasped, amazed at the speed.
Joshua, seated on her left, between herself and the Elder, turned to look at her and she realized she’d whispered aloud. She ignored him and asked silently, (Only a week, Charlie? Are you sure?)
(The process was scheduled for ten days but two have already passed, so yes, in effect, I shall be completed one week from today. Is that not good news?)
(That’s…great news.) She chewed on the inside of her cheek and thought about it. She could attend to Dramond and Kindi and whomever else she thought might be involved, then she and Charlie could leave. Immediately.
(They are trying to speak to you, Shayla.)
“Shayla?” Joshua asked, “Are you all right?” He looked down at her left hand, at the Shaklet, and she saw him figure it out. “Is there a problem with Charlie?”
Charlie told her, (Lorinth just asked if you are well. You should answer one of them aloud.)
(Thank you, Charlie. Please don’t speak to me again while I’m here. It’s distracting me.)
She ignored Joshua and looked straight across the fire at Lorinth, the Speaker for the circle. “I am well, Lorinth. May I make a Request?”
The man’s steel-grey eyes widened a little, and he glanced quickly at Joshua but then bent his head in approval. She’d practiced the words while she’d been sitting back in her office, but now she struggled to remember what she wanted to say.
“As you can see, I have suffered a great loss. I’m sure you’re aware it was Raif, but I state that now, for the record, and I Request the right to avenge his death. A life for a life, from those who did this to me. To him. He was mine—my—he was taken from me and I am entitled to the lives of those who did this. I will not take more than the few behind this, but I claim this right of vengeance. Their lives are mine, by my hand…and their ashes are not to be retaken.”
Lorinth frowned but she was surprised to note the men on either side of Lorinth—Thuvius at his right hand, Marcus at his left—both nodded in approval. She noticed Cantoria bowed his head and closed his eyes while B’tar kept himself focused on the fire. Cadmus reached a hand out to Joshua, who let out a long, belabored sigh before taking the Elder’s hand. It was distracting the way the two of them acted as though they knew each other. Maybe they did. She didn’t care anymore. Well, she did care and she had to admit, she was getting pretty curious about it the longer this went on, but she didn’t want to care. She wanted to pretend she didn’t even notice.
“Am I denied this Request? I have the right as…I have the right.” She’d almost said as his Mate but although she might feel like Raif’s surviving Mate, she wasn’t actually Mated to him, especially given he wasn’t actually Phoenician. She kept stumbling over what to call him. It was strange but she’d never struggled for words to describe him before. He was Raif. That had always been enough before now.
The fire between her and Lorinth brightened and climbed high enough to obstruct her view of him. The Elder spoke quietly, too softly for her to hear, and when she looked over at the sound she noticed Joshua was shaking his head, murmuring something she thought was “No, that’s too much. I can’t let you do that.” The Elder murmured something back to him but she couldn’t hear what he said.
Joshua kept his eyes on the fire and his expression somber when he said, “All right, that’s enough. Shayla, someone has to speak up for the human interest here.”
“And that would be you?” She asked, indignant.
“Well, I’m human and I’m interested.” He looked up from the fire and met her eye to eye. “And since I’m here, yes, that would be me.”
The Elder smiled and added. “Child, we have already offered to do this thing for you, for both of you, but Joshua feels it would not be fair to kill them all. He believes some of them are victims of your actions. Is this true? Have you brought this on the humans?”
Joshua smiled and stretched his legs out in front of him, leaning back on his hands—looking exactly like Raif did when he used to sit beside her at this fire. “Now, Cadmus, what I actually said was some of them are worshipping her and depending on what action she takes next, they could become victims. Like Raif.” Joshua looked over at her again. “I think you know what I’m talking about, Shayla. Your followers? You do remember that you have Class Ones worshipping you, don’t you?”
She shrugged. She’d forgotten until he mentioned it. She never really gave it much thought because she didn’t take it seriously. From what she could tell they’d worship a rock if they thought it would do them any good.
Joshua went on, “I object to the whole idea of humans worshipping Phoenicians, especially in your capacity as a Councillor, but obviously, not even I can control what people feel and think. I wish I could have stopped this before now but you, at least, have a responsibility to choose your own actions from this point forward. You need to choose with others in mind. You can’t simply go out there and start killing, using a Phoenician throw to kill humans, and expect there to be no secondary effects.”
“I’ve practiced. Raif and I spent hours every week on target practice. I’m very good, Joshua. I could demonstrate if you’d like to volunteer.”
“I don’t doubt your skill at throwing. I doubt your thoughts have taken you past the immediate gratification of killing. What do you think your followers will do? Is it possible they might take it as a sign and follow your lead? Maybe take it further and kill all of the Privilege Class Citizens whose family lines have held control of the Council since the day we landed. Or maybe the Proctors would have to slaughter all of the Class Ones to stop it, not knowing who follows you and who does not.
“We have no way to prove anything, so the Proctors would have to kill the entire Class One population—that’s millions, Shayla—and don’t neglect the fact, that in the process of this genocide, half of the Proctors might die. Assuming of course, you care whether or not a Proctor lives or dies. I don’t know, you tell me. Who would be better off dead? Class Ones or Proctors?
He kicked dirt at the fire near his feet and it dimmed slightly before regaining its brightness. The Elder poked at the fire with his cane and it almost looked like it became lopsided, brighter close to Lorinth, dimmer and cooler near Joshua’s outstretched feet. He looked over at Cadmus and smiled warmly, with a quick, “Thank you.” Then he turned back to Shayla and resumed his tirade.
“Out of curiosity, who do you think gave you the right to sit here and choose who lives and who dies? You may have the right to avenge Raif’s death, a life for a life, but you can’t do this, Shayla, not millions for the sake of one man. He may be my Heir and your—lover—but no single life justifies a blood bath, not just to sate your blood lust. Raif would certainly never have approved of it, from what little I know of the man.”
Cadmus shook his head. “No, he would have let us take care of it instead, Joshua. He would have seen the benefits to our expediting the process. We can kill them all quickly and end it without another thought. No one need even remember—”
“I’ll remember!” Joshua insisted and stared into the fire with a deep concentration paralleled only by the old men. “I remember it all.”
“Wait!” Shayla said suddenly, when it dawned on her he’d been speaking Phoenician. Heavily accented, granted, and salted with untranslateable terms like Councillor and Proctor, but otherwise, perfectly-formed, fluent Phoenician. “You’re speaking Phoenician! Since when do you speak Phoenician? What’s going on here?”
“Hm, you know I can’t remember exactly when I first learned to speak Phoenician. It was a long time ago and I had a hard time at first.” Joshua turned to the Elder and asked, “Cadmus, my memory’s not what it used to be. What did it take me, a whole year before I could speak full sentences?”
“That was too long ago for me to recall either.” The Elder shook his head and chuckled. “You struggled with the words, my friend, but you never gave up. That is why we grew to love you.” The Elder smiled and patted at Joshua’s hand, “And we always understood your mind.”
“Hm, from your moment of first contact.” Joshua said, cryptically, with a sardonic smile. “It was a painful first contact but at least some things fade with age.”
[to be continued]