|Kaidan and Javira Clissander, "The Twins"|
The gates swung open slowly before the small family huddled just outside them. A mother and her two young children slowly inched their way into the courtyard.
The one on her right—a boy barely eight years old, with deep green eyes and soft red curls—hunched closer.
"Are you certain we should be here, mother?" He whispered. Their tattered clothes seemed dreadfully out of place here. It was too grand a place for the likes of them.
"Of course, dear," his mother answered. "The castle was in need of a washerwoman, and the summons allowed me a small apartment of my own on the palace grounds."
The little girl—no more than three minutes older than her brother— shrank into her mother's skirts as servants intent on their duties stopped to gawk rudely at the newcomers.
"Mama," she whimpered, "I'm scared!"
Veransa Clissander held her children's hands a little tighter as she was confronted with the misgivings weighing on her heart. She swallowed the doubts and shook her head. "Now then!" She spoke as much to herself as to her children. "We cannot let fear of what may be, and what others tell us should be, get in between us and what is! We—I have received this opportunity, and it won't do to let it go to waste merely because we weren't at all sure about how this would all turn out." She met the gaze of both her children. "Chins up!" She instructed them. "Smiles on! You know that we have worked hard to arrive at the point we are at, and we have earned this new situation, which promises to provide for us for as long as we need it."
The boy blinked his eyes as they wandered the lowly service halls in the bowels of the castle. Only their mother seemed to know just where to go. She turned the corner and a man stepped in front of them, as if he had been waiting for their approach.
"Oh there you are!" He cried. "When you said you would arrive today, I had no idea it would be so late."
The dutiful mother bowed her head. "My apologies. The market was a little more crowded than I was expecting."
The man sniffed. "Hm, yes; well, you're here, so you might as well get started right away. Peraven!" He raised his voice only slightly as a woman in plain clothes with full skirts joined him and immediately took the daughter's hand. She frowned and tried to twist away, but Peraven's grip held as she also moved to herd the children away from their mother.
She reached for them frantically. "What are you doing?"
"Come now, Veransa," the man chided her. "Surely you did not think we would allow you to bring children down there! Do not worry; Peraven watches the Crown Prince, as well. They will be in good hands while you work."
Peraven's wide skirts served as an impassable barrier as she goaded the children onward, toward the stairs that would bring them to the main level of the castle.
"Come along," she cooed sweetly. "What are your names?"
The boy sniffed as he thought of his mother, all alone. "K... Kaidan," he stammered.
Peraven turned her gaze to the little girl, but she hung her head without a sound.
"'S my sister, Javira," muttered Kaidan. "We're twins."
"Kaidan and Javira?" Peraven repeated. "How wonderful you get to join us! Come and meet your new friend; his name is Beren, and I think you'll get along just splendidly!"
Kaidan let a smile play around his lips as the memory resurfaced of his arrival at the White Castle.
The governess had been all smiles and sweetness during that first meeting, but after becoming acquainted with her young charge, the quick, keen, troublesome Prince Beren, it became clear that this was merely an act on her part. Beren was a few years older than the twins, a fact of which he was rather proud. He was accustomed to palace living and took delight in constantly correcting the two newcomers, often making fun of their frequent mistakes when they behaved in a way contrary to the prescribed protocols of etiquette—but in spite of all his knowledge of behavior, there was something he could not quite do: subvert the all-encompassing governess. Not a moment did they spend out of her sight, not a minute of their collective days was spent free of her pervasive influence.
Whole years passed without Kaidan and Javira even once getting to see their mother. For all his defiance and stubbornness, Beren had yet to uncover a vice or a weakness in the implacable woman. Then came the day when Javira, not quite twelve but fast becoming a woman, happened to catch the shift in Peraven's demeanor every time a certain knight marched by. It happened to occur at the exact moment that Beren was attempting to sneak another scone, which was something she frowned upon. The lad would surely have been discovered and punished—if the knight had not decided in that instant to stop and let the sun glint off his armor. Peraven did not look away as his mailed hand lifted toward his chin, as if he intended to remove his helmet so she could glimpse his face—
The scone vanished, the hand dropped, and the moment ended. Javira glanced at her brother, and the bond they shared confirmed that something significant had happened.
Kaidan glanced out the window to the servants' lodging, where Peraven and Captain Fortin of the King's Guard lived, happily enamored with each other.
Finding out what distracted the all-present governess wasn't the only thing that happened that day. Very soon, Kaidan found that he, too, had an almost uncanny knack for getting things to happen just like he wanted them to. The three youngsters could do as they pleased as long as Peraven continued to look the other way, and as soon as Beren promised to make Kaidan his personal servant, the capable child-minder suddenly found herself the object of an affectionate proposal, and promptly decided that her charges were quite mature enough to look after themselves.
Kaidan moved into the room adjacent to Beren's chambers, and Javira fairly floated downstairs to the massive washing room to find her mother.
Kaidan moved to the parlor just outside his room, and found his sister already waiting.
"So soon?" He asked. "How is she?"
Javira wouldn't meet his eyes; she spoke slow, in short breaths, as if she had trouble making the words come.
"Mother is well; she knew right away." Finally, Javira whirled to face her brother, the silky red hair tumbling down her back as the full, bland skirts swished. "She knows our Gift!"
Kaidan tilted his head. "Why is that such a terrible mystery?" He asked.
"Is it not strange to you?" His sister demanded. "Siblings, possessing the same Gifts? How would she even know of our Gifts if they are supposed to be unique to the individual?"
Kaidan shrugged and moved to place a hand on her shoulder. "It is not so strange; we are twins; we share a lot of traits."
Javira turned her head away again. "She said our father had the same Gift." This time, she spoke with an edge sharp enough to cut.
Kaidan couldn't help reacting to her words. "Our father? Since when did Mother ever speak of our father?"
Javira pressed her lips. "She told me all about him; she said that the Gift he had would cause others to do what he wished. He used it on her."
Kaidan nodded. "And basically forced her to marry him; I get the picture. But Javira, the man is no doubt dead somewhere, or at least not even thinking about us! Mother escaped from him."
Javira shook her head. "No; our father is the reason we are here. Mother said he convinced her to take the job, even if it meant giving up her children. In return," she scowled, "the scoundrel gets a stipend of his own, which he has used to buy a mansion all his own, where he resides in comfort—"
"While we must be content with inferior beds and second-rate castle lodgings," Kaidan finished with understanding. "I agree; it's not fair."
"What do you suppose he somehow used his Gift to change ours?" Javira murmured. "What do you suppose would be the Gifts we were meant to have?
"Can a Gift be changed like that?" Kaidan responded.
Javira hung her head and her lips twitched.
Kaidan's instinct was never wrong. "Oh, sister, you didn't."
"I wanted to!" She looked up with fervor. "I chose one of the gardeners—he was making flowers right there in his hands and planting them instead of just weeding and caring for the plants already there. I just wanted to see—" she faltered.
"And?" Prompted her brother.
Javira shook her head. "I couldn't do it; if it is possible, it must be only with family, and only before a Gift has manifested."
Kaidan peered closely at his shaken sister. "So why are you still troubled? What happened to the gardener?"
Javira crossed to the edge of the room. "My influence caused him to exude an entire bouquet in the sight of his overseer. Some guards took him away. I am afraid—"
Kaidan took his sister by the hand and led her to the couch. "You don't have to be afraid, Javira. King Balwyn is not opposed to employing Gifted people; Prince Beren even showed me his Gift."
The lines of worry disappeared, and she even tried to match her brother's smile. Clearly she regarded the prince well. "Beren is Gifted?"
Kaidan nodded. "He can manipulate water, and even exude it from his own hands. He told me his father keeps a record of Gifted people, and professes a desire to see them all gainfully employed in occupations that benefit the kingdom and utilize the unique Gifts."
Javira's smile dimmed. "Records can be dangerous; what real benefit would ones like us have for the realm?"
"You have said the very thing that went through my head when I first heard the news," Kaidan confirmed. "We know that, based on what our father did with it, such a thing could only lead to harm if it were made known."
"And yet our father remained unknown, so he was able to destroy all our lives with his Gift!" protested Javira.
"Keeping the record is inherently neutral, so long as the intent is beneficial," Kaidan affirmed. "But if there might be other Gifted people out there, and men like our father continue to have their way—"
"We must figure out a way to use the record to find each person," Javira concluded. "We can use our shared intuition to discern which are legitimate needs, and which individuals need to be stopped."
Kaidan nodded. "I know of at least one person whose influence is far too pervasive, and needs to be controlled or at least diminished."
Javira finally relaxed. "Then perhaps the solution is not to use the King's record, but to create our own."
In the pause, the clock in the Prince's parlor chimed. Javira stood. "I must return to the servants' quarters," she said. "Mother has reserved the cot next to her for me."
Kaidan joined her on his feet, and hugged her close. "We will find a solution for this, Javira, I promise," he whispered.
Javira lay in her cot, watching her mother's sleeping body curl close, the arms forming a protective barrier over the chest.
"Don't worry mother," she whispered into the night. "We understand. Men like father don't deserve to live unhindered. He will be stopped." She closed her eyes and fell asleep to the echoes of that comforting thought.
The next morning began with a scream.
Javira bounded to wakefulness as Veransa shrieked long and loud, holding her bloodied hands before her. But whose blood was it? A swift investigation revealed that during the night, Habram Clissander had been murdered with someone's bare hands. Since the only likely conclusion was also the most obvious, Veransa Clissander, his abused wife, was found guilty of the crime (though she professed no knowledge), and the death sentence swiftly followed.
Kaidan and Javira again conferred, this time both wearing clothes of the deepest black—though no cloth in the world could convey the depth of their despair.
"It must have been father!" Kaidan declared.
Javira couldn't understand how her whole world could have fallen apart so suddenly. "Why would father want to kill himself?"
Kaidan began pacing. "Who knows? Perhaps to be rid of us forever. Now we are the children of a drunk womanizer and a crazy murderess. Can you imagine the mess we would be in if our Gifts were revealed now?"
Javira clapped her hands to her cheeks. "No one can ever know what we are!" She gasped in horror.
Kaidan met her gaze with determination. "The Gifts are not a benefit to society, no matter what the King says. The only ones who can truly help the realm are you and I."
Javira blinked in confusion. "But what can we do? How can you be so sure?"
Kaidan stopped pacing and dropped into the seat next to her. "Don't you see?" He said with eyes alight. "Fate brought us to the palace. We alone can hide our Gifts and prevent them from ever being discovered, even while we use them to reach our goal, the one position where we can do the most good: we must become heads of the Royal Council, and bend it to our will!"
Javira felt her brother's Gift overwhelm her mind, but she welcomed it; she always trusted her brother completely. "Yes!" She enthused. "We will cleanse the realm of all the Gifts, so that no one will ever experience the terrible tragedy we have faced today." She smiled, as the more she thought about it, the more it felt right. "So, Kaidan," she stood by her brother's side. "Do you happen to have that list you finished yesterday?"
"I do!" Kaidan drew the piece of parchment out of the pocket in his cloak. Javira glanced at the first name.
"It appears we have our first target," she mused.
At the top of the parchment stood a name, in bold strokes:
KORSAN NASROK, KING'S ADVISOR. Beside it, another column listed the respective Gift: MAGIC.
Javira smiled; they had their work cut out for them, but they could handle it together.
It was a strange sensation, Erlis thought, to be dragged along the corridors by nothing but magic influence. She had complete freedom to turn her head to either side as her feet marched forward of their own accord. They stood in what seemed to be a disused operating theater, with high dark windows, all shattered, and two deep troughs, roughly human-sized. Her stomach churned.
"This is where the Council—"
"Conducted the experiments on the Gifted ones, without the knowledge of the King," Zayra hissed, her head lolling. She giggled as she ran a hand around the rim of one trough. "I guess you could say this is the cradle where I was born!" She laughed but her ecstasy turned to a scowl as she whirled on her prisoners. "And it will be the coffin where I die, to be reborn yet again!"
Aurelle noticed a lone wire draped over the edge of the trough. With her eyes, she followed its length to the edge of the room, up the wall—and by then she saw the other end: coiled around the wrist of another woman wrapped in wire, dangling (thankfully right side up) from the ceiling!
Erlis heard her gasp and followed her gaze.
"Edri!" She cried.
Zayra leaned against the trough and laughed. "Oh yes! I decided that I was tired of being the one experimented on, that I wanted to try an experiment on my own! See, it didn't work, last time she put her hands on me; she couldn't fix my brain. So I wanted to see what would happen if I siphoned off all her Gift, and transferred it to myself with this wire." She jerked to her feet and clapped her hands. "Then I will have TWO Gifts!"
Erlis shook her head. "A Gift ceases when it is taken. It can only remain a Gift if it is given freely."
Zayra stuck out her lip in a pout. "Well, how do you expect me to do that? I can't very well ask her!"
Erlis sighed. "Zayra, I am sorry for what happened to you, but this is not the way to help yourself. Please, let us go and—"
"NO ONE IS LEAVING THIS ROOM UNTIL I GET WHAT I WANT!" Zayra shrieked.
Instantly, all the doors in the space vanished. The windows only led to other, doorless rooms.
Erlis felt her whole body jerk as Zayra slapped her across the right, human side of her face.
"Do NOT address me as anything other than Your Highness or My Queen! I AM QUEEN!"
Aurelle stepped forward. "Your Majesty," she said slowly. "Please release that woman; taking her Gift cannot help you. There is not even a guarantee that your method will work!"
Zayra scowled. "It must! I demand that it works!" She picked up the wire, and immediately the suspended body gave a jerk. A blue spark illuminated the wire around her hand and spread along the wire, eliciting a deep wail of pain from the soldier—but the blue light barely made it half the distance between the two before it faded to nothing.
Zayra wasn't fazed; in fact, she seemed almost excited. "Did you see that?" She squealed, tugging on the wire some more and making the body jiggle. "I demand that you wo—"
"ENOUGH!" Erlis roared, angry flames flashing in her dragon eye. She lunged forward to yank the wire from the madwoman's hand, but Zayra shrank back.
"Stop!" She whimpered. "Don't touch me!"
Erlis felt the wave of resistance pushing her back as Zayra said it; her Gift gave her the power to make her whims reality.
"Please," she begged, "my... My Queen." The title came as barely a whisper. "There is another way; if you let Edri go, I can give you something that will in fact help you more than Edri ever could."
Zayra leaned forward, a hungry gleam in her eye. "What is it?"
Erlis pulled up the sleeve of her right arm, all the way up to the scales and plated shoulder. "Dragon's Blood, infused in my body."
Zayra inhaled slowly. "The most regenerative substance there is," she whispered.
Erlis nodded. "I will give it to you freely, as much as you need; only let Edri go!"
Zayra weighed her options for only a moment. She shrugged and dropped the wire. "Oh very well; she wasn't much use to me anyway." With a quick pull and a twist, she released the mechanism holding Edri aloft. Aurelle barely had time to catch the body as it crashes toward the smooth floor tiles. Immediately, she set about untwisting the wires. She looked up and locked eyes with Erlis.
"Go," the Dragon nodded. "Tell the others where I am. Tell them not to come for me."
Aurelle bundled the unconscious Edri in her arms and turned toward the window—but it was still filled in on the other side.
Zayra perched coquettishly on the edge of the trough. "Ah-ah!" She wagged a finger at the women. "Our business has not finished—and you really don't think the Healer was going to do everything herself, was she?"
Aurelle left Edri propped against the wall as Zayra lay down in the trough.
"You," she pointed to Erlis, "in there." She indicated the other trough.
Erlis had no choice. She crossed to the empty trough and lay down.
Zayra held out her arm. Erlis did the same.
"Hook us up!" Commanded the Queen.
She put out her hand. "Look out for the—"
Korsan sidestepped the loose rocks neatly and landed safely on the other bank.
A small smile played around the Alpha's lips. "You know my village?"
Korsan chuckled. "I knew your parents, young one. In fact, it is your house I was hoping to—"
He stopped as they arrived in the clearing.
Velora's voice came strained. "You'll find it much changed from when you were here last," she whispered.
Korsan surveyed the devastation. No house was left standing. The entire area stood inches deep in soot and rubble.
"What happened?" He asked.
Velora shrugged. "One moment, we were all huddled in our homes as the storm raged outside. No one even knows which house caught first, but it didn't take long for it to spread, even in the rain. Father made a hole in the wall, and I escaped..." She stopped by a patch of ashen mud.
Korsan swept forward and placed a hand in a divot filled with freshly-turned earth.
"You won't find it here."
The voice was barely a whisper, and yet the speaker had no scent so it was several members before Korsan and Velora found her: a woman, dressed in gleaming white, with magnificent wings all bent and shattered spread beneath her.
"Who are you?" Velora demanded.
The woman looked straight at Korsan. "One who knew the Prince," she said. "I tried to help him—"
"What have you done?" Korsan hissed.
"What was necessary." The woman didn't appear to be bloodied, but she sounded very weak, and her skin was so pale it looked almost translucent. Most puzzling of all, she still had no scent.
"I took his memories while he was a prisoner on that pirate ship. I carried them as we traveled together into the Harbor. I led him here and put the memories in the crown. I had hoped he would put it on before heading to the castle, but—" she gave another shuddering gasp as her eyes rolled in her head.
Korsan lunged forward and took her hand. "But what? Did he put it on? Does he remember?"
Her head lolled. "I don't know; we parted company. I don't know. I must depart so I can recover. I'm sorry." She faded out of sight before their eyes, in a burst of brilliant colors.
Korsan stepped back. Velora watched him carefully as the stench of his fear rolled off of him in waves. "What is it? Who were you talking about?" She asked. "What memories? What Prince? Is she talking about Jaran?"
Korsan gripped his talisman so hard the gems bruised his skin. "When you were but a babe, Prince Beren Seramis, the Crown Prince, departed on a pleasure cruise with friends who would betray him, and he left behind the True Crown. Only the one who wears the True Crown is fit to sit upon Balwyn's throne, and only the one who sits upon Balwyn's throne is fit to be his successor. The Twin Regents no doubt plan to use Jaran as bait to lure his brother, and if he doesn't remember who he is, then he will no doubt yield the crown in exchange for his brother. We must get back to the castle!" The old Mage took off running through the forest. Velora had to draw upon the Wolf within to keep pace with him.
"I don't get it!" She pressed. "What do you mean, if he doesn't remember? Who has the crown now?"
"Velora!" Korsan didn't slacken. "Prince Beren is Harlock, the man with no past!"
"Oh blast!" She snarled. "And he's headed to the castle a long while ago, to try and rescue Jaran!"
"We need to stop him before he hands over that crown!" Korsan agreed as the White Castle loomed into view.
Harlock landed in the throne room, the antique crown hanging from a loop on his belt.
Slow applause caused him to freeze and peer defensively at the shadows in the front of the room.
Javira and Kaidan Clissander sat upon the two thrones where the King and Queen once sat. To avoid the penalty for breaking the law, they had draped the golden seats with heavy black fabric, to sit upon.
"Well done, Beren," Kaidan nodded. "I was wondering when exactly you would make it back from your pleasure trip!"
Harlock snorted. "You are mistaken; my name is Harlock." He saw Jaran and the other kid, a young wharf rat with barely any clothes, kneeling in irons at the foot of the dais. The end of Jaran's chain rested in Javira's hands, while Kaidan held the other.
Javira regarded him smoothly. "You seem to know your way around this palace very well, for a sailor," she mused.
Harlock shrugged. "What can I say? I have a keen sense of where to find things, and it just happened that this was the only room with people in it." He saw them glance to the side, where a gorgeous woman in rich clothing sat in a gilded cage, her hands gripping the bars so tightly that her knuckles gleamed as white as pearls. "Hello, what's a pretty thing like you doing locked up?"
"Leave her!" Kaidan barked. When Harlock turned back to him, he continued in a silky tone. "So then, you know nothing of this Beren person? And your name is Harlock?"
Harlock nodded. "Oh yes, and I'm taking your prisoners."
The twins exchanged a glance. "Both of them?"
Harlock shrugged. "Well, I was going to just take the tall skinny one, but the pickpocket I think works with a friend of mine," he gestured toward the cage, "and if I am not mistaken, it doesn't look like the pretty one actually wants to be here, either."
Azelie rattled the bars of her cage, but no sound escaped her lips.
Kaidan glanced at his sister. "What do you think, Javira? Should we just let them all go?"
Javira tilted her head and regarded him closely. "Not for free, of course. Naturally, if you're coming here to liberate the hostages we've rightfully collected," she gestured to the two unmoving in front of them, "you should at least bring something of value to us."
Harlock seemed to scrunch his face as he considered it, but he shoved his hands in his pocket and shook his head. "Yeah, I've got nothing."
There was no missing the sudden elevated tension as both twins leaned forward.
"What about the crown you carry?" Kaidan licked his lips and tried in vain to keep his voice steady.
Harlock glanced down and unhooked the crown, spinning it around his wrist like a juggler's hoop. "What, this old thing? I found it buried in the woods somewhere, can you believe it? Nah, this isn't worth the dirt I scraped it from! Ask me for something else."
Both twins were on their feet now.
"Did you put on the crown or not?" Kaidan snarled, even as Javira shouted at the saw time, "Give us the crown!"
Kaidan grabbed her shoulder. "No! It's no use to us if he's already worn it!"
Harlock chortled. "Worn it? With all the manure I had to shift to get it? No thanks, I am not in any way interested in putting that anywhere near my face, thank you very much!"
Kaidan held Javira's gaze. "Is it true?" He asked.
Javira's eyes shifted to lock onto the trembling Azelie. Her expression relaxed.
"He knows nothing," she confirmed.
"So," Harlock was tossing the crown in the air and catching it. "Are we making this trade or not?"
Kaidan smiled. "Of course; one crown for three prisoners."
Harlock gasped through clenched teeth. "Yeesh! You two drive a hard bargain. Oh well; at least we're all getting what we want. Catch!" He tossed the crown higher this time, and toward Kaidan. The Lord Regent lunged for the diadem as Harlock yelled, "NOW!"
Immediately, Damaris jumped to his feet as flames engulfed his body, so hot that the iron turned to red liquid and dripped from his wrists.
Javira barely had time to resister a spark from Jaran before it slammed into her with so much energy that it sent her rocketing backward across the room. The bolt melted the locking mechanisms off the cuffs, and soon Jaran was free as well.
Damaris still flamed as he approached Azelie's cage and melted the door right off its hinges, allowing her to crawl out.
The four Outcasts stood together as Kaidan rose to his feet, gripping the crown in his hands. Slowly, as Javira struggled to recover from the lightning blast, Kaidan placed the crown on his head and closed his eyes in anticipation.
Kaidan snatched the crown off to look at it closely, but it was the last move he ever made, as a sudden frigid blast covered him in water and froze solid.
Harlock clenched his fist to stop the flow of ice.
Javira had gained her feet and clutched the side of the throne. She glared at Azelie. "You!" She screeched, "You were in his mind! You told me he didn't remember!"
Azelie smiled, but Javira could no longer read her thoughts. She had hidden them—just as she had hidden the slew of new memories in Harlock's mind.
Meanwhile, Harlock plucked the crown from Kaidan's frozen hand.
"Beg pardon," he said, "but this isn't yours."
Javira lunged at him, but a bolt of energy from Jaran knocked her flat.
Harlock winked at him. "Thanks, brother."
Jaran smiled. "Anything for my brother."
Damaris groaned. "Can we please just get on with this?"
The newly-crowned man stood on the dais, pulling aside the heavy swath of fabric.
"I am Prince Beren Seramis, Son and Heir of King Balwyn Seramis, and rightful ruler of this realm!" He sat on the throne, and around him, the darkened castle thrummed to life.
In the next instant, a terrible scream split the air.
"What was that?" Jaran asked, stating at the open window. He had heard that scream before.
"It came from the Laboratory Tower!" Azelie answered.
The Clan of Outcasts Series: