I was standing on the wall, looking out to sea. The thicker atmosphere of Nedan resulted in softer hues. The ocean had a warm lavender undertone, while the sky above cast royal purple and turquoise shadows across it’s rippling surface. Nedan’s clouds were sparkling orange on the star-facing side with pale purple shadows on the other. Alomine. That star was called “Alomine.” I laughed, remembering the Marchempor’s boast that he was ruler of all existence.
Then I stopped in surprise. I was dreaming, wasn’t I? And yet, I could remember Bartroles. And Leon and Ryonel. The city of Solanti. My mind raced through all it’s stored data, observing itself, questioning details, and wondering if there were missing pieces. Then my consciousness returned to the dream.
I was standing on the wall of the estuary starfort, looking out to sea. I turned a complete circle, memorizing the horizon. There were mountains to the west. The ocean spread as far as I could see both North and South. I looked down the length of the wall to my right and saw an opening. A stairwell that descended down into the wall. It was as thick as a two lane road, so it stood to reason that there might be space inside.
Suddenly, without walking there, I was standing halfway down the stairwell, looking back up at the light of day. A figure was silhouetted there; a human figure with enormous wings, outstretched, but in the motion of folding, as though the creature had just landed.
“What are you?” I asked.
“A messenger.” The creature answered in words which echoed in my mind, but were not spoken aloud. He was masculine, larger than a human being, and very strong. Eyes like blue flame flickered and lit his bronze-colored face.
“Who sends me a message?” I asked, feeling afraid and vulnerable.
“You are not enough to understand. . . yet.” The Messenger answered.
“Understand what?” I persisted.
He did not answer, but through my mind flashed a million images of life. Humans, animals, birds, trees, plants, soil biology, other life forms, other worlds and stars, all being born, blossoming with life and giving birth to more life. And through it all there was a breath. . a breath that filled me as well. I gasped and staggered backward against the inner wall, unable to stand upright. The Messenger waited, watching me with unexpected empathy in his gaze.
“Be strong, Rising Light,” he spoke into my mind. I felt resilience fill and steady me.
“What is your message?” I whispered, curious and terrified at the same time.
“There is a moss that grows on the stone walls of Solanti.”
“I’ve seen it,” I answered. “It grows on the ablution block walls near the waterfall.”
“Crush it and put it in water in the sunlight until the water is golden,” he instructed.
“Give it to Leon to drink,” the Messenger said clearly, and then again, “Give it to Leon to drink.”
Then his folded wings opened with the sound of rushing water and he crouched down as though to leap skyward.
“Wait!” I cried reaching out toward him. He hesitated and looked back. “Tell It. . tell him . . thank you, for my— my breath.”
His head tilted back as though in laughter, and then he was gone.
I awoke as though emerging from cold water, sitting straight up in bed, gasping and wide awake. The dream was so real, so tangible, I felt it had to be true. There was no way my mind could have come up with something as detailed and colorful as the winged messenger had been.
“Give it to Leon to drink.”
I dug through my backpack until I found the clear, collapsable canteen the Global E-fleet issued. Then I went to Madia’s room, wanting to tell her my dream and ask her if she knew anything about the moss. But she was gone, probably with her children.
At the ablution block I filled the canteen with fresh water. Then I scraped moss off the wall near the waterfall with my fingernails. It was soft and dry. Up close it looked like a myriad of tiny fern leaves, all curled and bunched together. I sniffed it and hesitated.
What was it going to do to Leon? Make him sprout wings and become a Messenger? Make him hallucinate and see the future? Surely not.
The dream was wearing off, and reality was setting in. It was ridiculous to act on an idea in a dream. Leon would call me crazy. There’s no way he would drink the moss tea anyway.
I opened my hand and let the moss fall into the rushing water channel and watched it float downstream and disappear into the “pipe” that took it to the next floor.
No. I would always wonder. For the rest of my life I would make excuses and try to explain why I hadn’t just gone ahead and made the darn moss juice. Besides, the glowing-eyed Messenger hadn’t said I couldn’t try it myself.
Hastily, before I changed my mind, I scraped more moss off the wall, crushed it between my palms until I felt it releasing inner moisture, and then began to poke it into the canteen as though my life depended on it.
Then, laughing, I returned to my room and put the canteen in the window where it could steep in the early afternoon sun.
What now? I was still tired from the night before.
My stomach growled and I remembered the bundle Ryonel had given me the day before. It was still under the bed. The cheese was hard and the bread was dry, but I was hungry. While I sat on the bed eating, I watched the water in the canteen turn yellow. It was mesmerizing, watching the essence of the moss fall into the water like golden streams pouring downward.
A hiccuping cry caused me to jump and turn toward the door in alarm.
“Danteres! You startled me.”
Tears ran down his cherubic face and I held out an inviting hand toward him. He climbed onto the bed and sat beside me with his head hanging and tears falling onto his open palms. He was catching his own tears, half engrossed with their number, and half absorbed in his own grief.
“What is it?” I asked, worried. “Is Madia okay?”
He nodded and kept crying.
“Then what is wrong?”
“He tries to destroy everything I love,” Dante cried. “Just like he tried to kill Madia.”
“Your father?” I asked.
Dante nodded again and hiccuped.
“Now we’ll never get to leave,” he mourned.
“Of course we will,” I asserted. “He can’t stop us.”
“He killed Leon.” Danteres stated fiercely.
My heart leaped up into my throat and all the blood drained from my face. I thought I was going to faint and held onto the little boy next to me for support more than in an effort to comfort him.
“No,” I whispered. “No, he didn’t.”
“I think he did,” Dante said with less assurance. “He looked dead.”
“Take me to him, Danteres.” I said, and stood up.
Surprised at my own calmness, I checked the stun gun and slipped it back into the holster. I took out the first aid kit and strapped it around my waist and beckoned to Dante again with my hand. “Let’s go,” I said.
Without a word he took my hand and we went out the door. To my surprise we went toward the stairwell.
“Where are we going?” I asked, stopping abruptly in the hall.
“To Leon,” Dante explained. “I found a secret way. Like the way you found to the Youth Hall.”
“Hang on,” I said, suddenly remembering the moss tea. Maybe it was medicine.
“Hang on to what?” Dante asked. I ran back to the room and took the canteen from the window.
“Okay, let’s go,” I said, running back to where he was waiting for me.
Danteres led me up to the bridge across to the Youth Hall, but from there we went up instead of down. Here there was another empty floor with a second bridge across to yet another building.
“The Birth Hall is five floors down in this building,” Danteres told me as we climbed the stairs to another level. “But we are going to the next one over.” I was not surprised to find a third stone bridge across to the next building. We crossed another wide open room full of statues and paintings and descended three floors of stairs.
“Leon is here,” Dante whispered at last, coming to a stop. He peeked around the stairwell corner at two guards in the hallway, outside a room similar to my own.
“Wait here,” Danteres told me without pausing to conspire. I pulled the stun gun, ready to walk out and zap both of the boy-guards. But Dante was ahead of me, and I paused to see what he was going to do.
“May the gods favor you, Danteres, Marchempor of the future,” one of the guards said with grave deference.
“And you,” Dante said in a friendly voice. “I’m just going to the ablution block.”
He disappeared through a nearby door and I sighed in frustration. What now? Leon could be dying.
“What is that?!” I heard one of the guards say in exasperation.
“Danteres!” The other shouted, and both of the guards ran toward the Ablution Block and disappeared. Water was running out of the doorway and puddling in the hallway.
“I don’t know what happened.” I heard Dante’s voice. “It was broken.”
Another day I would have smiled at the little boy’s ingenuity but now I only felt relief and took the moment he offered me. I ran to Leon’s room and found it empty. For a moment I felt a pang of terror, but then a groan issued forth from under the bed. Leon had fallen off the bed and rolled underneath. But he was still alive.
I managed to pull him halfway out by his nearest arm.
“Lani,” he groaned. “You have to go. Hide. Bartroles—“
“Is a murderer,” I said through clenched teeth. “What did he do to you, Leon?”
“Stop raining on me,” Leon moaned incoherently. My tears were falling on his face as I tried to lift his head and look into his eyes. They were cloudy and unfocused.
“Poison,” Leon murmured. “He poisoned me. Go with Ryon, Lani. He’ll take care of you.”
“No,” I said fiercely. “Leon, Leon, I need you. You have to stay. You have to live.”
His head rolled and he went limp in my arms. He was burning with a fever. No wonder he wanted the cold floor. With one arm I held his head, with the other I pulled the lid of the canteen open. I was past doubting.
“Drink this,” I whispered and poured the liquid into his slightly open mouth. He seemed unconscious, but he swallowed and I poured more.
“Nashty,” he said once, but he kept drinking and appeared stronger than he had been a few moments before.
“What is that stuff?” Leon asked at last, refusing the last few ounces of moss tea.
“How do you feel now?” I asked, avoiding his question.
“Like crap,” Leon said. “You’ve got to get out of here. If Bartroles shows up, I’m too weak to defend you.”
“You sound more like yourself,” I said hopefully.
In the hall, I heard more voices, and Dante shouting.
“I did NOT do it. How dare you accuse me! YOU were the ones who broke it. Why don’t you repair it? Well, then, go get the mortar. I’m not your slave. If you repair it in a timely manner, my father will never know what you’ve done.”
He was a wonder, that little boy.
“Is that Danteres?” Leon asked with a wrinkled forehead. I nodded and offered him the rest of the tea. He sniffed it and drank a little with hesitation.
“I do feel better,” he said and sat up on his own. “What is that stuff you gave me?”
“Moss tea,” I said, laughing through my tears.
“Where did you get it?”
“From the ablution block on my floor.”
“There has got to be more to that story,” Leon said, rubbing his head.
“You’re alive again!” Dante’s young voice exclaimed. He stood in the doorway with his hands on his hips and his feet spread in a wide stance. “They won’t be gone long,” he added without much concern. “If you want to get out of here without getting caught, we should go now.”
I shook my head, but Leon pushed me gently away.
“Yes, go now Lani. Look at me, I’m okay. You and that moss stuff fixed me. Get out of here and tell Ryonel I won’t make it to the take-off tonight.”
“We can wait another day,” I said.
“Yes, tomorrow night we’ll go. In the meantime I’ve got to pretend like I’m on Death’s door. And you’ve got to lay low too. Don’t let him see your fear.”
“I don’t want to leave you. Maybe you could make it to the Starport if I help you.”
“No, we’d get caught, and I’m too helpless right now. Give me a day to regain my strength. Please, Lani. I love you, sis.”
“I love you too,” I said, trying not to cry.
“Come on,” Danteres interrupted, leading me impatiently toward the door. “We have to go.”
“I’m fine. I’m going to be fine.”
I recalled the dream I’d had and the Messenger’s flickering blue eyes.
“I know,” I said, and followed Dante out the door.
“Danteres!” The Marchempor’s voice roared from the hall as we began to climb the stairwell again. Dante blanched and stopped short.
“Can you find your way back?” he whispered.
“Yes, but —“
“I’ll be okay,” he assured me. “He won’t hurt me, and I’ll keep him occupied until you are safe.”
Without hesitation he ran back down the stairs and was gone. “Hello, Father,” I heard him say.