It’s been quiet on the blog lately. I submitted Firebird’s final, edited manuscript to Amazon on Wednesday and I’m excited about its release on the first. Not too far away, now!
In other news, I started to plot Palace of Glass, the next novel in The Mieshka Files, and Tempest is plugging right along. Palace of Glass will merge both The Mieshka Files and Sylphide’s stories, tying each into the other quite nicely. The outline’s coming together nicely so far!
Anyway. Enough talk. Onto the chapter!
Robin massaged Meese’s head, turning the red hair a muddy brown as she rubbed the dye in. They crowded the corner of her bathroom, Meese perched on the lid of the toilet seat, head bowed forward, Robin bent over, chasing every last ounce of copper from her friend’s hair. A ratty towel hung over the fire elemental’s shoulders, cherry-picked for its lack of aesthetics.
“So,” Robin said, “you might have to go soon?”
Underneath her hands, she felt Meese nod. The smell of chemicals rose into her face, and she twisted her nose. It had taken her nearly an hour to work back to that topic, and she still had to work her brain around it.
Sure, she knew the reason—Meese had to leave because of the invasion—but it took a long time to process.
Neither of them could sleep—not that Robin wasn’t tired, but she’d hit that stage where she’d been awake so long her body had given up trying. Last night’s—or maybe this morning’s—research project had turned into a day-long affair, and Robin had been glued to her computer screen, clicking on links, reading articles, and watching videos for nearly 15 hours straight.
Granted, not all those articles and videos had been about the war. But it had been a recurring theme.
It was also, she’d learned, much closer than her government had let on.
That was what took so long to process. The point where the invasion stopped being a background news story and started being an imminent danger.
All the news feeds had stopped saying “if” in regards to invasion and had started saying “when.”
Robin leaned back, twisting to reach the bathroom switch with her elbow. The overhead fan cranked on a moment later.
A drop of dye slid off the thin cellophane glove she wore and stained the skin on her wrist. Robin combed her fingers through Meese’s hair, looking for spots that appeared lighter than the rest. If Meese was to be a believable brunette, then the dye job had to be even.
She held her breath and squinted as the chemical fumes curled into her face. They’d gone through nearly two packages of the stuff. If this last one didn’t do the job…
She moved to the side, double-checking.
Then she leaned back and gave Meese a pat on the head.
“I think you’re done.”
Meese straightened. In the mirror, Robin saw her open her eyes. Two chunks of hair, separated from her skin by a thin barrier of cling wrap, fell over her face. The dye appeared much darker than it would be—once they dried it, the hair would lighten considerably.
Still, it’d take a bit for Robin to get used to the look. She’d only known Meese as a redhead—heck, as far as she knew, Meese had only known Meese as a redhead.
Must be a bit of a shock to look in the mirror and see something different.
Robin peeled off the gloves, turned them inside out, and plunked them into the garbage. Meese reached for the empty box of dye.
“We let it sit for fifteen minutes, right?” she asked.
“Yep,” Robin said. She turned toward the door. “I need more caffeine. You want anything?”
Meese shook her head. As she reached for her phone, Robin left her to it.
Thirty minutes later, Meese sat on the living room couch, looking skinny against the cushy brown leather and picking at her new hair.
It looked weird. Maybe it was her lack of sleep, but Robin’s brain still had a hard time juxtaposing Meese’s face against the brown hair. It was even harder with Meese wearing one of Robin’s favorite shirts. Meese’s old shirt was just starting the spin cycle now. Despite the towel they’d used, dye had seeped through and leaked around the edges.
She’d make a note of that, for next time.
Of course, there wouldn’t be a next time, would there? Meese was leaving.
“Do you know when?” Robin asked.
Meese looked up from her hair. It made her brown eyes look lighter than they had, which raised more red flags in Robin’s brain—like there was just something about the combination that put her straight into the “uncanny valley.” Robin couldn’t stop staring.
Meese seemed to know what she was talking about. She dropped the piece of hair she’d been holding and shrugged.
“What, like…this week? This month?” Robin leaned forward, narrowed her eyes. “Tomorrow?”
God, she wasn’t leaving tomorrow, was she? She couldn’t. That would be impossible. Surely, they’d know a bit more in advance—
“I already packed a bag,” Meese said.
Shit. Robin took another swig of her energy drink, swirling it around. The fruity taste lingered on her mouth long after she swallowed.
“You look so different,” she said. It didn’t look natural, but she wasn’t about to say that. Natural-ness didn’t matter, she decided—it only mattered that it wasn’t red.
Meese didn’t want to look like Aiden’s kid anymore.
“Yeah?” Meese held a tuft of hair up in front of her. It looked slick and shiny in the light. Parts of it still had a copper undertone, as if the orange still lingered under the color.
Meese let the hair drop. For the first time that evening, her mouth turned up in the corners.
“Good,” she said.
They sat in silence. Robin nursed the drink in her hand. Thoughts whirred through her mind.
“How will you go? The tram?” An underground train system, part tram and part cable-car, connected Lyarne to Mersetzdeitz in the west. As she’d discovered in her research, the system was largely responsible for keeping Lyarne well stocked with supplies. Without it, trade between the two countries would be nonexistent.
It seemed the go-to option, as far as evacuation routes went. But Mieshka shook her head.
“We’ll go in Aiden’s spaceship.”
Robin paused. “Is ‘spaceship’ really the technical term for it?”
“It’s a spaceship,” Mieshka said.
Huh. Fan-cy. Robin clicked her drink down on the coffee table and pushed herself off the couch. It had been a while since her last sleepover, but she still knew the basics. Rule number one: you don’t actually sleep at a sleepover. She swung around the edge of the living area and into the open kitchen. The fridge’s seal sucked as she pulled it open.
“You hungry? Thirsty?”
Usually, the no-sleep rule was fueled by lots of carbonated, caffeinated beverages, but her mother made that somewhat difficult. Vitamin waters lined the front of the shelves like multicolored sentinels, blocking the rest of the content. Robin reached around them to grab a hidden bottle of orange juice.
She backed out of the fridge just in time to see Meese shake her head. Robin poured her a cup anyway. Then she retrieved a stash of chips from the upper cupboard and upended them into a bowl.
“So, what you wanna do?”
Meese leaned her neck back against the couch and stared at the ceiling. “I don’t know. I just…needed to get away, you know?”
The top end of a bruise emerged where the shirt slipped low over her collarbone, the skin showing a faded blue-green color. If Robin looked, she could see where the bandages lumped under her friend’s clothes. Between bombs and attacks by earth mages, Meese had had a rough few days. No wonder she wanted a break.
Robin nodded along. “You’ve been kind of busy all break, haven’t you?”
“I needed to catch up on my training.”
“Your elemental training?”
Meese nodded. “Sort of. That kind of didn’t come until later. Aiden’s been busy.” She perked up. “But I learned to fire a gun.”
“That’s cool.” Robin reached over and popped a chip into her mouth. Salt spread over her tongue as she crunched it. “You think Jo would teach me, too?”
“Maybe.” Meese fidgeted. “I saw Chris today.”
“At the clinic I went to.”
Robin hadn’t heard from Chris in nearly three weeks—no texts, no calls, no nothing. Of course, that could have been helped along by her mother’s grounding and Robin’s lack of a phone, but still. He’d been distant towards the end of term. Robin had just chalked that up to finals, but maybe it had been a symptom of something else.
“How is he? Is he sick?” Maybe that was why he hadn’t been online.
“I dunno. We didn’t really talk, but then I was kind of out of it. The doctor gave me oxy-something.”
“Oxycodone? Are you serious?” Robin whistled. “My mom says that’s pretty rare.” And extremely dangerous. Mom had told her of some serious junkies coming into the hospital, half dead, strung out of their minds. “Isn’t it supposed to be majorly addictive?”
“Yeah,” Meese said. “The doctor was kind of hardcore.”
“What’s Chris doing there?”
“I think he works there.”
“Huh.” Robin sat back. The energy drink was back in her hand, and she swirled the liquid around at the bottom of the can. The overhead light caught on the rim, pale, dim, and tinted with yellow. “I guess that’ll make three of us, then. Hey—it could be like school, except we get paid and will probably get beaten up a bit. I think Roger mentioned kickboxing. Did he mention kickboxing? I think he mentioned kickboxing.”
“Probably. But…” Meese looked down at the lump on her thigh. “I think I can do without the beating up for a while.”
Okay, she had a point. But it was nice to know that the Underground had some sort of medical facility. Robin was excited about the kickboxing prospect. And the gun shooting prospect. And the…
She sat up. “Hey, what if—?”
Keys scraped in the lock. Robin stopped short. Both girls looked over as the bolt turned and the front door swung open.
A tall-figured man stepped into the apartment’s hallway, lugging two heavy duffel bags behind him. He bent his head as he dropped a set of keys on the mantle, the strong light from outside angling across the rumpled camouflage of his uniform. Medals gleamed on his breast pocket. Before the door closed and took the light with it, Robin saw sergeant stripes on his shoulder.
It had been well over seven months since Robin had seen her brother, and there had been no love lost in that time. Nathan turned into the room and stopped short at the sight of them. His eyes flicked to her, gave her a quick scan, and then focused on Meese.
Meese, who looked rather shocked at the soldier who’d just walked in.
Nathan turned back, closed the front door, then dragged his bags the rest of the way into the room. He hefted them onto the couch beside Robin before looking down on her.
“Shouldn’t you be asleep?” he said.
Robin rolled her eyes. “Welcome home, dick-face.”
Meese never took her eyes from him. She looked stiff, tense.
Must be the uniform.
“It’s okay, Meese,” Robin said. “This is my brother, Nathan. Nathan, Meese. Mieshka, really, but everyone calls her Meese.”
Nathan’s eyes flicked back over Meese with a renewed interest. “The fire mage’s apprentice?”
He knew about that? “Yeah.”
He grunted. Then, taking a smaller pouch out of one of the bags, he disappeared into the bathroom.
Meese raised an eyebrow. Robin shrugged.
“Guess he’s tired,” she said.
They heard something heavy clunk in the bathroom. Robin narrowed her eyes as the water ran. He wasn’t normally this obtuse, but she supposed she’d be tired if she’d just spent the last few days crammed into a truck with a bunch of sweaty, smelly men. She didn’t know much about her brother’s service, but the news reports were enough to fill in the blanks.
Meese shifted. Her hair caught the light, eel-slick. Again, Robin found herself staring. She shook her head, gulped back the last of the drink, and forced herself to look away.
God, maybe she was getting tired again.
She pushed herself off the couch.
“Let’s watch a movie. I’ll get my computer.”
As she crossed to her room, her brother came out of the bathroom. Metal glinted in his hand.
In one swift, military-trained move, he leveled the gun at Meese.
Robin froze, halfway through her bedroom door. “Nathan, what the—?”
He pushed past her, putting himself between her and Meese. Her friend’s eyes widened as the barrel focused on her forehead. Robin saw a twinge of panic—the same panic Meese had arrived in Lyarne with six months ago.
Robin wasn’t doing much better. Her heart hammered in her chest. Her hands shook. For a moment, she couldn’t speak.
She forced her voice out.
“Nathan, what the fuck are you doing?”
He ignored her. “Mieshka Renaud, you are under arrest.”
His voice was low, steady, and dead serious. The gun never wavered.
Meese took shallow breaths. Her hand—the bandaged one—gripped either side of her knee.
“For what?” she breathed.
“Nathan, what the fuck are you doing?” Robin repeated, stepping back into the hallway. “She’s my best friend.”
“She’s also on the military’s most wanted list.”
Robin stared. “That’s impossible. She saved the shield. She beat—”
Meese interrupted her. “Since when?”
Her eyes had focused, sharpened. They studied Nathan with an unearthly calm.
“Bulletin went out earlier today,” he said. “It’s on all the military feeds.”
Silence followed his statement. Emotion furrowed Meese’s brow. Her brother’s shoulder was in the way, but she could see the calculation in her friend’s eyes.
“What did it say about me?”
“You run with terrorists,” he spat. “You are to be taken in for questioning.”
Meese’s eyes flicked up and met Robin’s. Her newly dark hair framed either side of her face. Robin thought back to the dye—had it all been about not looking like Aiden’s daughter? Or had there been another motive?
Robin shook her head. What was she thinking? This was Meese—her friend, not a terrorist. There must have been some mistake.
Her brother shifted, tilting his face to the side but never lifting his stare from the fire elemental. “Robin, get your phone. Mine’s out of battery.”
Robin looked between Meese and her brother. Then she disappeared into her room.
When she returned, she had her phone. She also had her gun.
She pointed it at her brother.
“Nathan,” she said, her voice calm and steady. “Put the gun down.”
Meese’s eyes flicked to her, but Robin didn’t meet them. She didn’t take her focus from her brother.
Perhaps he sensed something had changed, or maybe heard the tone of warning in her voice, because he turned his head. Her gun caught his attention.
“On second thought,” she said, “give the gun to Meese.”
She didn’t let him finish. “Give it.”
He didn’t move for a long time, and his stare bored into her. He gave her his entire focus now.
Apparently, the gun in her hand made her a more immediate threat than the fire elemental on the couch.
Finally, he relented. Without a word, he held out his gun, butt first, to Meese. She stirred, grabbed her crutch from where it leaned against the back of the couch, and stood. She took the gun and dismantled it with a practiced ease, taking the magazine and leaving the rest of the parts scattered on the coffee table.
Then she edged towards the door.
Robin followed, never taking her sights off her brother. At the door, she grabbed her coat and backed into the outside hallway. The hallway’s bright lighting cast her shadow across the threshold. The last she saw of her brother, his face had a grim, stern look, blue eyes watching her with a look she wouldn’t soon forget.
She shut the door and followed Meese away.