Page 46

“Ocean Hill,” Cal says, following my gaze.

The compound dominates the crest of the rise, a fat white cat lazing peacefully behind crystalline walls. Like Whitefire Palace, the edges of the roof are gilded in metal flames, so expertly forged they seem to dance in the sunlight. Its windows wink like jewels, each one gleaming and clean, the product of who knows how many Red servants’ toil. The echo of construction scrapes and rumbles from the palace, doing only Maven knows what to the royal residence. Part of me wants to see it, and I have to laugh at such a foolish side of myself. If I ever step inside a palace again, it will be in chains.

Cal can’t look at the Hill long. It is a distant memory now, a place he can no longer go, a home to which he cannot return.

I suppose we have that in common.

FIFTEEN

Gulls perch on the stars adorning every roof, watching as we pass through the cool, midday shadows. I feel exposed beneath their gaze, a fish about to be snapped up for dinner. Cal keeps us moving at a brisk pace, and I know he feels the danger too. Even in the back alleys, overlooked only by service doors and servants’ quarters, we are still hopelessly out of place in our hoods and threadbare clothing. This part of the city is peaceful, quiet, pristine—and dangerous. The farther in we go, the tenser I feel. And the low pulse of electricity deepens, a steady thrum in every house we pass. It even arcs overhead, carried through wire camouflaged by twisting vines or blue-striped awnings. But I feel no cameras, and the transports stick to the main streets. So far, we have gone unnoticed, protected by a pair of bloody distractions.

Cal guides us quickly through what he calls the Star Sector. Judging by the thousand stars on a hundred domed roofs, the neighborhood is aptly named. He skirts us down the alleys, careful to give Ocean Hill a wide berth until we circle back to a main road busy with traffic. An offshoot of the Port Road, if I remember the map correctly, connecting Ocean Hill and its outbuildings to the bustling harbor and Fort Patriot below, stretching out into the water. From this angle, the city spreads all around us, a painting of white and blue.

We fall in with the Reds crowding the sidewalks. There, the white flagstones are choked with military transports. They vary in size, ranging from two-man vehicles to armored boxes on wheels, most of them stamped with the sword symbol of the army. Cal’s eyes glitter beneath his hood, watching each one pass. I’m more concerned with the civilian transports. They’re fewer in number, but they gleam, moving swiftly through the traffic. The more impressive ones fly colored flags, denoting the house they belong to, or the passenger they carry. To my relief, I don’t see the red and black of Maven’s House Calore, or the white and navy of Elara’s House Merandus. At least I won’t have to expect the very worst from today.

The jostling crowd forces us to walk huddled together, with Cal on my right and Farley on my left. “How much farther?” I whisper, edging my face back into my hood. The map has gone fuzzy in my head, despite my best efforts. Too many twists and turns to keep straight, even for me.

Cal nods his head in response, gesturing to a bustling throng of people and transports up ahead. I gulp at the sight of what is undoubtedly the beating heart of Harbor Bay. The crown of the city’s hill, ringed by white stone and diamondglass walls. I can see the palace gates, bright blue and scaled with silver, but a few starry turrets peek out. It is a beautiful place, but cold, cruel, and razor sharp. Dangerous.

On the map, this looked like nothing more than a plaza in front of the gates of Ocean Hill, connected to the harbor and the gates of Fort Patriot down the gentle slope. The reality is much more complicated. Here, the two worlds of this kingdom seem to mingle, Red and Silver drawn together for a fraction of a moment. Dockworkers, soldiers, servants, and high lords cross beneath the crystal dome arcing over the massive courtyard. A fountain twists in the center, surrounded by white and blue flowers not yet touched by autumn. Sunshine shimmers through the dome, refracting dancing light onto the realm of brightly colored chaos. The fort gates are directly down the avenue from us, dappled by the shifting light of the dome. Like those of the palace, they are artfully crafted. Forty feet high, made of burnished bronze and silver braided into giant, swirling fish. If not for the dozens of soldiers and my sheer terror, I might find the gates magnificent. They hide the bridge beyond, and Fort Patriot farther out to sea. Horns and shouts and laughter add to the overload, until I have to look down at my boots and catch my breath. The thief in me delights at the thought of so much confusion, but the rest is frightened and frayed, a live wire trying to contain its sparks.

“You’re lucky it’s not the Night of a Single Star,” Cal murmurs, his eyes faraway. “The whole city explodes for the festival.”

I don’t have the strength or the need to respond to him. The Night is a Silver holiday, held in memory of some navy battle decades ago. It means nothing to me, but one glance at Cal and his distracted gaze tells me he doesn’t agree. He’s seen the Night in this very city, and remembers it fondly. Music and laughter and silk. Maybe fireworks over the water, and a royal feast to end the party. His father’s approving smile, jokes with Maven. Everything he’s lost.

Now it’s my turn to look faraway. That life is gone, Cal. It shouldn’t make you happy anymore.

“Don’t worry,” he adds when his expression clears. He shakes his head, trying to hide a sad smile. “We’ve made it. That’s the Security Center there.”

The building he indicates stands on the edge of the bustling square, its white walls stark against the tangled traffic below. It looks like a beautiful fortress, with thick-glassed windows, and steps leading up to a terrace surrounded by columns carved into the scaly tails of enormous fish. Patrolled walkways arch over the diamondglass walls of Ocean Hill, tying it to the rest of the palatial compound. The roof is also blue, decorated not with stars but spikes. Cruel iron, six feet long, and sharpened to a wicked point. For magnetrons, I suppose, to use against any kind of assault. The rest of the building is the same, covered in Silver weapons. Vines and thorny plants wind up the columns for greenwardens while a pair of wide, still pools hold dark water for nymphs. And of course, there are armed guards at every door, long rifles plain in their hands.

Worse than any guard are the banners. They flap in the sea breeze, streaming from the walls, turrets, and fishtail columns. They bear not the silver spear of Security but the Burning Crown. Black, white, and red, its points twisting in curls of flame. They stand for Norta, for the kingdom, for Maven. For everything we’re trying to destroy. And between them, on gilded banners of his own, is Maven. Or at least, his image. He stares out, his father’s crown on his head, his mother’s eyes glaring. He looks like a young but strong boy, a prince rising to the ultimate occasion. “LONG LIVE THE KING” screams beneath every picture of his sharp, pale face.

Despite the impressive defenses, despite Maven’s haunting stare, I can’t help but smile. The Center pulses with my own weapon, with electricity. It is more powerful than any magnetron, any greenwarden, any gun. It is everywhere. And it is mine. If only I could use it properly. If only we didn’t have to hide.

If. I despise that stupid word.

It hangs in the air, close enough to touch. What if we can’t get in? What if we can’t find Ada or Wolliver? What if Shade doesn’t come back? The last thought burns more deeply than the rest. Even though my eyes are sharp, trained on the crowded streets, I can’t see my brother anywhere. He should be easy to spot, limping along on his crutch, but he’s nowhere to be found.

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***