Moyen sat at the edge of Toyus’ bed. The boy was thin, having had nothing but broths and sometimes unable to keep those down. His head was as a skull, all sharp edges and lines. His hair, oily from days upon days of no washing or brushing, lay plastered to his head. Kaster and Topon had developed a serum of some sort that was seemingly helping the boy fight the infection, but still the areas where he had been burned emitted heat and were red and angry against the pallidity of his flesh. It had been nearly a week since Malida’s funeral and, in another week, he would leave Draemin City behind. It was only when he was at his eldest son’s bedside that he felt unsure about his decision to leave the city.
Moyen started, wiping at his cheek with a cold, unsteady hand.
Toyus was awake, watching him with steady, fever bright eyes.
“Hallo, son,” Moyen said quietly.
Toyus gave him a flickering grin. “How are you, Eda?”
Moyen took his son’s remaining hand in both of his. “I am well enough, boy. Well enough. How do you feel?”
Toyus coughed, a wet thick sound that worried Moyen deeply. He struggled to sit up and Moyen helped him, patting his back to dislodge the phlegm in his lungs. He held the boy tight, closing his eyes against the wave of sorrow that threatened to undo him. I must be strong, damn it, he thought and steeled himself. Once Toyus coughing fit had passed, he helped is son lie down once more.
Toyus sighed and closed his eyes. “Why can’t I get better or just die?”
Moyen’s heart broke. “I don’t know what Atana is doing with you, boy. I’m sorry.”
Toyus squeezed his hand. “It’s not your fault, Eda.”
He let go of Moyen’s hand and wiped the corner of his mouth. His fingers came away red with blood.
Moyen swallowed past the boulder lodged in his throat.
The door to the bedroom opened.
“How are you, Toyus?” Kaster asked.
Toyus grimaced. “I’m dancing jigs over here, Sentinel.”
Kaster sat down on the stool near the bed. “I’ve modified the serum, Toyus. The new strain shows promise.”
Toyus rolled his eyes. “Excuse me if I have little hope, doctor.”
Sol stepped through the door. “You’re up, Toyus.”
Toyus’ face suffused with blood and he dropped his gaze. “I am.”
Moyen wondered at his son’s reactions but said nothing as Kaster made him move so he could examine Toyus. He stood next to Sol and watched as the doctor listened to Toyus’ heart and lungs and examined his burns. With a sigh, the Sentinel rose and turned to them.
“I will administer the serum via injection,” he told them. “I will return.”
“No,” Toyus said firmly.
Kaster turned. “What?”
“I said no,” Toyus said. “If the infection kills me, then so be it. Your serum is making me feel worse, Kaster.”
“That may be the battle being fought at the cellular level–”
Toyus looked at his father. “Eda, please–“
Moyen took in his son’s pale, skeletal features and too-bright eyes. He took in the pleading in the depths of those green eyes.
He sighed. “I’ll support my son in this request, Sentinel Kaster.”
“I protest! I’m his doctor–“
“And you are in my employ,” Moyen retorted. “You may monitor his wellbeing, but you won’t inject any more serums or any more medicinals.”
Kaster helplessly looked at Sol.
Sol sighed and shrugged. “We have to respect their wishes, Kaster.”
Kaster said something too soft to hear and stomped from the room.
Sol gave Moyen an uncertain smile. “I’m sorry. He’s the most stubborn of us.”
“It’s not your fault, Sentinel,” Moyen murmured.
There was a knock upon the door and a guard stepped into the room. “Warlord Rien is here to see you, Lord Ekesj.”
Moyen nodded at the soldier. “Very good. I’ll be right out.” He turned to Sol. “Keep him company, will you?”
Sol nodded. “Of course, sir.”
Moyen closed the bedroom door behind him and walked to where Rien stood leaning against the fireplace mantle.
They looked at one another.
“I’ve news,” Rien said without preamble when the guard had exited the room and closed the hallway door behind him.
“Sit,” Rien told him.
Moyen sat down. “What is the news?”
“We’ve killed Lord Ethael and his younger son and confiscated their territories for the crown. The King will gift it to one or more of your children when they marry.”
Moyen nodded. “Did Lord Ethael know what Othol was planning?”
“He swore up and down that he had not known Othol meant to kill the alien or your wife, my friend. Except he was lying through his teeth. We found letters Othol had sent to him while he was on the run. He may not have helped Othol but he did nothing to warn you or the king.”
Moyen swore softly. “How did he die?”
“Lord Ethael and his younger son were drawn and quartered, sir,” Rien told him without emotion.
“Good,” Moyen said. “And his wife and daughters?”
“His wife threw herself from the battlements of Kuin-on-the-H’aj Castle, sir.”
“I see,” Moyen murmured and closed his eyes against the nausea that rose in him. “And the daughters?”
“They are married and live in other households, sir,” Rien replied.
“Leave them be then,” Moyen told his friend.
“Yes, sir.” Rien shifted and glanced at the closed bedroom door. He heard voices from within.
“What is it?” Moyen asked.
Rien sat down next to him and lowered his voice. “I found out what you tasked me to find.”
Moyen glanced at the bedroom door and nodded. “Go on.”
Rien took in a deep breath and released it promptly. “I…I don’t know know how to say this thing to you, friend.”
The stomach dropped out of Moyen’s middle, leaving him feeling lightheaded and dislocated.
“Is my son going to die?” he heard himself ask from a great distance.
“Most likely not,” he heard Rien say. “That’s not the issue.”
Moyen felt relief and anxiety flood him as one. He clasped his hands together and took a deep, cleansing breath. “Then what is the issue?”
Rien’s glance flicked away then returned anxiously. “He’s changing.”
The door to the bedroom opened and Sol stepped through. “I can tell you, since your spy has already discerned it.”
Sol looked over his shoulder and closed the door behind him. “He sleeps.”
They watched him stride to the fireplace and lean against the mantle.
“Well?” Moyen demanded.
Sol nodded. “He’s changing physiologically. On a cellular level.”
Moyen rose, frowning. “What does that even mean?”
“The bacteria attacking your son are something the likes of which we have never encountered. In some ways, it acts like a virus. It is fusing with his cells and changing your son into something else,” Sol said. “We don’t know what because we don’t understand this bacterium.”
The breath left Moyen’s lungs with a whoosh. One minute he was standing, the next he was sitting with his head between his knees, gulping air.
Rien gently patted Moyen’s back. “Breathe, my lord.”
Moyen breathed deeply, in and out slowly. Eventually, the dizziness passed, and he was able to sit up.
“I want to transport him to the colony,” Moyen said. “I don’t want him here, isolated. I want him with me.”
“That is a good idea,” Sol replied. He placed a hand on Moyen’s shoulder and squeezed.
Moyen pushed his hand away. “Why would you not tell me anything of this?”
Sol sighed. “I was ordered not to, my lord. Besides, what could you have done for him that we can’t?”
Moyen grimaced. “Nothing.”
“Precisely, my lord.”
The Sentinel walked to the window and pressed his forehead to the thick glass. Beyond the glass, snow swirled in the strong wind. The wind moaned and rattled the windows.
“Maybe the Sha’jeen can help him,” Moyen said into the silence.
“They are not as advanced as the Sentinels in medicine,” Sol replied quietly. “They were on their way to cultural degeneration. They have lost most of their scientific and medicinal abilities.”
“But you have not,” Moyen accused him. “But still you can’t help him!”
“We are doing everything in our power and knowledge, my lord,” the Sentinel said with conviction. “But this bacterium…it is strange. We can’t get a handle on it before it mutates, almost as if it knows we are observing it!”
Moyen rose wearily to his feet. “I am to bed. I can’t speak of this anymore. We will take Toyus to the island and I will ask the Sha’jeen to help him. I lose nothing in trying.”
He strode from the room.
Six days later, Moyen pulled his kamarani cloak about his shoulders and bent to pick up his travel bag.
Moyen picked up the bag and turned. His remaining children stood just inside his bedroom door.
“You came to see me off?” he asked with forced cheerfulness.
Pren took a step closer. “Why are you leaving, Eda?”
“I already explained that I need space from the city until I can grieve your mother’s passing,” Moyen told the boy. “I am leaving you in the King’s care. Finish your schooling and then the Queen will find you spouses.”
He walked past them, and they followed him to the sitting room.
“Why must you take Toyus with you?” Emeida demanded, running to overtake him then standing in his way.
“Move, girl,” Moyen growled. “I already told you: Toyus will die if we don’t get him help. Only the Sha’jeen can help him now.”
He pushed past her and strode into the sitting room.
oun D’jir stood next to Rien and Sol and Kaster. Both Sentinels were coming with them.
“When will you return, Father?” Itina piped up.
He sighed and turned to her. “That I cannot tell you, girl. Once I am emotionally strong enough, I will return.”
Soena gathered a sobbing Itina into her arms.
Moyen turned away, heart breaking. “Shall we head out?”
“Derik is already in the shuttle,” Sol told him. “The Sha’jeen will need the assistance of a good engineer.”
They strode down the long hallway to the northeastern stairwell. Five guards led the procession and five more brought up the rear.
The shuttle had landed on the north side of the vast bailey, taking up most of the space. They made their way in the softly falling snow, heading north from the Great Hall entrance. When they reached the shuttle, they found a crowd of soldiers studying it with curiosity and some trepidation.
“You have to leave the area once we start the engines,” Kaster told the crowd. “Or the heat from the engines will fry you to a crisp.”
The muttering soldiers moved several feet away.
Moyen walked up the ramp into the main cabin of the shuttle. The shuttle was as big as a house, with two stories, three stairwells, a cockpit, and a storage area in the back.
“Sit down and fasten your seat belts,” Sol told Moyen and Rien. “If you sit next to a window, you’ll see the land fall below you.”
Rien took a seat next to Moyen. “I’m not ready to see the land fall below me.”
Sol grinned and fastened their seat belts, showing them how to unfasten them. He then stowed their travel bags in an overhead compartment and snapped it shut.
“How long is the journey?” Rien asked the Sentinel.
“Fourteen hours and some minutes,” the Sentinel replied. “Once we are in the air, you may move around the main cabin. I’ll be sitting next to Toyus’ cot.”
When the Sentinel walked away, Rien turned to Moyen.
“This will be interesting. Fourteen hours, ey? Seems amazing.”
“Yes,” Moyen agreed. “It would take us most of the year, if not all, to find this island.”
There was a hum and then the shuttle shook itself like some great beast awakening. The inside of the beast vibrated. The vibrations increased as Kaster closed the main shuttle door and found his way to the cockpit. Both he and Derik were flying the shuttle. After a few minutes, Derik’s voice came over the speakers in the main cabin.
“Everyone, make sure you are strapped in,” he said, following with directions in Sha’jeen. “The flight will take a little over fourteen hours at medium speed. Sol will give you refreshments once we are in the air. Have a good flight.”
Moyen was about to say something to Rien when the shuttle gave a lurch and increased its vibrations until nothing could be heard above the sound of the engines. Slowly, the shuttle rose into the air, leaving the bailey below. Fascinated, Moyen pressed his forehead to the glass window and watched Draemin Castle grow small below them. They rose high into the clouds and higher until they rose above the clouds and into a bright blue sky. Moyen gasped.
“Look!” he told Rien. “The clouds are below us!”
Rien looked green. He swallowed convulsively. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
Sol was there with a bag that looked like paper but was lined with something called “plastic.” Rien vomited into the bag, heaving until there was nothing left in his stomach.
“Well, thank God it’s early and all you had was tea,” Sol murmured, taking the bag away.
Rien rested his head back and closed his eyes.
Moyen wanted to tease him, but Rien’s distress was so palpable, he decided not to. Instead, he lost himself in the sight of the clouds below them.
After a few minutes, Rien began to snore softly.
Moyen unbuckled his seat belt and rose, climbing over Rien’s legs and headed back to where Toyus’ bunk had been positioned between the rows of seats. Toyus was talking softly to oun D’jir.
The Sha’jeen glanced up as Moyen approached. He rose and bowed.
Moyen bowed. “oun D’jir. How is my son?”
oun D’jir sat down again. “He is better. He smells as if he is on the mend.” He cocked his head. “May I speak with you in private, aun Moyen?”
“Of course,” Moyen replied and glanced at his son, but Toyus was sleeping, dark smudges under his sooty eyelashes.
Moyen chose a seat on the other side of where Rien slept. He sat next to the window and oun D’jir slid into the seat next to him.
“What do you wish to speak about?” Moyen asked.
The Sha’jeen’s tail flicked, slapping the back of the seat in front of them. “I…your son no longer smells human, aun Moyen.”
“How does he smell?” Moyen asked.
The Sha’jeen shook his head slowly and closed his eyes. He lifted his face and sniffed the closed air of the shuttle. “Something familiar, yet so distant in our past. I cannot name it, aun Moyen.” He opened his beautiful blue eyes and blinked slowly, the tip of his tongue showing through his lips. “It smells like our past. That is all I can say. Perhaps someone else will recognize it once we reach the island.”
“Perhaps,” Moyen conceded. “Does he smell dangerous to you?”
oun D’jir closed his eyes again and sniffed the air. “Perhaps. Something in me is wary, that is why I keep close to him.”
“Perhaps it is not a good idea to bring him to your colony, oun Shi’ehl.”
oun D’jir hissed his amusement. “We can deal with your son, whatever it is he molts to become.” He sobered. “You know, once upon a time, that is how we behaved. We had a time during our evolution when we were different, we became warriors or breeders, depending on the needs of the people. It manifested itself like an infection of sorts and then we changed. The molting did not serve the species and eventually it no longer presented itself. Many died in the process of molting, aun human. We evolved into being born one sex or the other, but in the beginning, we became according to the needs of the people. If there were too few kits, too few people, we molted into Shi’ehl. If there were too many kits, too many people, we molted into boueli or Deuil.”
“Many died, you say?”
“Ye,” oun D’jir replied. “The molting was too traumatic. The body would go into shock and many died. Too few survived.”
“Could this be happening to my son?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” the Sha’jeen replied a tad mournfully.
Moyen sighed. “I suppose we will find out soon enough.”
“Ye,” oun D’jir said.