Daj strained her concentration, desperate to keep six glass orbs spinning through the air. Flickering angel light reflected from them, showering the maze of blackboards that filled her office with a cascade of emerald green light. She filtered the scenery away, focusing only on the rhythm of her juggling, forcing the orbs into a shaky hexagonal pattern. Adrenaline pumped through her as the trembling arcs smoothed. So close.
A heavy knock clashed against the door, breaking her concentration. Gravity resumed control and smashed the orbs into her desk, shattering the orbs into glittering shards.
The door slowly swung open to reveal Nalan. He stepped in, heedless to the devastation he had wrought. “Low tides, Daj. I hope I'm not interrupting anything.”
“No, I was just…” Daj sighed, and brushed the mess onto the floor. At least her office had a touch of color now. “What brings you to my humble cell?”
The wheels supporting the heavy blackboards creaked as Nalan neared. They skidded out of his way, arranging themselves into neat stacks against the wall.
Daj cringed. How was she going to find anything now?
“Have you investigated the supply chains yet?” Nalan asked. “It's been nearly a week.”
“I've run into some problems,” Daj said, glancing toward the still open door.
The door swung shut at Nalan's motionless command. A pang of jealousy struck Daj. He applied force to an object nearly ten feet away and without the slightest hint of effort. She struggled to lift a pebble at half that distance, let alone move a dozen heavy pieces of furniture at once. Sure, if she spent years meditating, she too could attain such skills, but the ability to rearrange furniture with ease didn’t seem worth a lifetime of tedium.
Converting heat into kinetic energy required both a mind devoid of distraction and deep knowledge of how the universe worked. One couldn't be expected to alter the laws of physics and chemistry without first developing an intimate understanding of them. Daj knew exactly how to change the world but lacked the willpower to do much about it.
“Your mother told you not to speak with me, didn't she?” Nalan asked, interrupting her rumination.
“Yeah, she thinks you're a touch idealistic and perhaps a little reckless.”
Daj shrank back expecting an outburst for relaying such an insult. Instead, Nalan laughed. A gruff and hollow sound, like a bear being told it was improper to eat dissenters.
“Perhaps she's right,” he said. “I've never been any good at spinning webs of deceit. I’d hoped to avoid the proper channels since it’d take the damnable magistrates months to even consider my request.” He sighed, dipping into a shallow slouch. “Thank you for your time, Daj. I’ll find another way.”
Daj considered Nalan as he walked away. Was he a soldier turned politician by circumstance or a politician feigning ignorance to garner sympathy? It was impossible to tell, but he represented a dead ideology within the secretariats: that money didn't dictate what was true.
Angels damn it, her mother hadn’t made any progress nor made the appearance of attempting to. It was time to try something else.
“Wait,” Daj called out. She opened a drawer and pulled out a simple folder. “Here. I'll deal with my mother's wrath.”
Nalan hesitated at the door. He ran a hand over his ash gray mustache contemplatively. “No,” he finally said, shaking his head. “If Merajre has forbidden you to speak with me and I take those… Well, I may be piss poor at this game but even I can smell a trap when it's baited with jungle fowl guts. I'll find my own way to track this down.” He bowed deeply before departing.
Daj sighed, slumping back into her chair. Ten tides without any progress from her mother. This was just a game to her. A game of power and deception where solving the problem came second to making sure it didn't compromise her. Even Nalan, a man less suited to the position than a literal bear, cared more about retaining power than doing what was right. It was long past time someone took a stand.
The rough envelope felt heavy in her hands, heavier than mere physics could account for. She tore out the documents, folded them in half and stuffed the paper into her purse.
No one stopped her on the way outside and into the crowded street. With any luck, she could visit a local reporter and get back before anyone noticed. She jogged down the street, weaving through the mass of pedestrians and vendors while fighting against the gusts funneling through the street.
A blur fell before Daj and slammed into the ground like a meteor. Shanja crouched before her, knees bent to absorb the fall.
Daj took a hurried step back, bumping into a heavyset woman behind her. “Oh, hi, Shanja.”
“Why did you leave without calling for me?” Shanja asked, rising to her full height.
The crowd routed around them, leaving only a tight oval of space to converse in. They had to speak loudly over the wind and coarse words levied at their obstruction.
“Sorry, I was um… feeling sick and decided to head home early. I was in such a hurry I forgot to send for you.” A blush grew across her cheeks. Solving differential equations proved far easier than lying to the embodiment of solemnity.
Shanja cocked her head and pointed the opposite direction. “You live that way.”
“You're right,” Daj said, palming herself on the forehead. “I told you I wasn't feeling well. It's a good thing you found me or I might have gotten lost forever.”
Daj turned and walked countercurrent to the crowd, earning her yet more glares.
Could she trust Shanja with this? She’d never given Daj any reason to mistrust her and often covered for her ill-advised adventures. But the secretariat employed her, and this wasn’t another drunken embarrassment. Maybe she could claim she was visiting a friend? No, once this leaked, the police would search for anyone recently in contact with the press. As much as it pained her, trusting Shanja with this was too risky.
“I'm not your jailer,” Shanja yelled over the wind. “I'm here to keep you safe. If you want to sneak out early and go spelunking, I'm not going to stop you.”
“Spelunking?” Daj asked. “Where would I even find a cave?”
“I can’t keep up with the latest amusement trends. You kids seem to change interests with the tide,” Shanja said, shaking her head. “Just don’t try to ditch me again or I’ll find someone else to babysit. Someone who wants me around.”
“I promise. No more meaningless gallivanting without a guard,” Daj said. “And what do you mean by kids these days? You're at most a year older than me.”
“Don’t try and flatter me,” Shanja said with a halfhearted smile as if her mind were a thousand miles away. “I’ve been around for almost fourteen convergences.”
Daj stopped mid stride, earning herself more glares from passersby. How much time did this woman spend exercising?
“Alright, I take it all back. You’re an old hag.”
An old hag with a figure that’d make a narcissist half her age envious.
Shanja smirked and opened her mouth to speak, but the heavy gale stole her words away. Daj winked playfully and cupped her hand around her ear. Shanja could only shake her head and follow in silence.
How long until the next convergence? Two-hundred tides? Three-hundred? Daj never bothered to keep track. It was an ancient tradition that meant little in this age.
Legends from before the eternal winter claimed that eleven angels brought light and warmth to the world. Three wandered the land as they pleased but the other eight flew in perfect orbits across the sky. Although, each traveled in different directions and velocities, their orbits all crossed at the origin every twenty-two-hundred tides.
Only the corpses of angels remained, but the date of their convergence still marked the new year and the cause of much celebration.
They neared Daj’s apartment. An older building, built of dark red brick instead of marble. Originally constructed twenty years ago, to house foreign dignitaries, it was now mostly occupied by young socialites with parents rich enough to allow them to pursue a life of artistry. Daj had a difficult time appreciating art; it tended so abstract she couldn’t tell it from a child's scribbles, but she loved artists. They were so open minded and bohemian. Not to mention they threw unforgettable parties, or so claimed the few who could recall them upon waking.
Daj resided on the eleventh floor. A holy number, the only housing concession she allowed her mother.
“I'm going to take a nap,” Daj said, walking through the cluttered apartment to her bedroom.
Shanja nodded. “I'll be out here until Yej's shift starts.”
The door swung shut behind Daj as she shuffled through the lake of laundry strewn across the floor. She flopped onto the large bed that filled most of the room and willed a sliver of energy into the radio atop her dresser. Relaxing music filled the room.
It'd be awhile before Shanja's shift ended and seeing how the woman’s omniscient gaze somehow noticed Daj sneaking out of a busy office, there’d be little hope of escaping now.
The curtains pulled open, bathing the room in angel light. Daj leaned back and watched the clouds roll by.
Voices intruded into Daj’s dreams, dragging her to consciousness. A moment later they subsided, then the front door clicked shut.
Shanja's replacement must have arrived. Yej or something like that. Daj couldn’t place the name to a face but she assumed it was one of the more annoying guards.
Daj glanced at her clock. It declared she’d slept for nearly three hours, but it felt more like ten minutes. She rubbed her eyes while watching seconds tick by on the clock. Five painful minutes passed. Surely, Shanja would be gone by now. She pushed herself off the bed and dug through her dresser. Deep within its confines she found thick leather gloves and pulled them on.
The window slid open easy and Daj crawled onto the balcony. Wind immediately assaulted her, threatening to send her off the edge. She clutched the railing to keep from falling and peered over the side. Her stomach disappeared at the sight: eleven stories of open air followed by the sudden stop of pavement. At least the narrow alley was vacant.
She stole a glance through the balcony door’s window to find her bodyguard laying on the couch, tossing a ball in the air, oblivious to the world. What were they paying him for? At least that was one obstacle she didn’t need to worry about.
Heat born by the light of angels flowed into her, instilling a sense of control. She took a deep breath as her consciousness expanded. Everything within her reach now seemed a part of her. The small table, matching chairs, and even the particles floating in air were but additional limbs awaiting only her command.
Okay, I can do this. I only need roughly twenty pounds of force across my hands and feet to not die. That's nothing, child’s play.
Daj took a deep breath and stepped onto the railing, reaching for the wall. The wind took the opportunity to attack with renewed vigor. Its sudden outburst sent her teetering over the edge. She windmilled backwards desperate to avoid falling. Her attempts were in vain. She plummeted over the railing. Open air embraced her and tore away a scream. She forced her panic down and converted heat to motion, pushing sideways. The wall smashed into her. Rough bricks scraped against her back and snagged against her skirt.
Before the pain could overwhelm her, she managed to spin her body around. She slammed her hands against the wall and willed much force into them. The gloves shredded against the coarse surface, and her hands strained against the crushing force. The ground met her far too quickly, and she crumpled onto the pavement.
Daj found herself on her back breathing heavily. Every type of pain found its way into her system, her hands burned, sharp agony vibrated along her bones, and a dull pain coursed down her backside. But she had survived, and with no one around to witness her escape.
“Impressive,” Shanja’s humorless voice cut through the pain. “I'm curious to see how you were planning to sneak back in.”
Well, no witnesses except the one person she was actively trying to avoid that is.
Daj twisted her head to find Shanja leaning against the opposite wall, arms crossed.
“Ixcel’s flame, why are you stalking me?” Daj asked, pushing herself to her feet. She grimaced at every movement.
Shanja narrowed her mountain blue eyes. “Daj, do you know what my job is?”
“To protect me?”
Shanja strode over and struck her finger forcefully into Daj’s sternum. “To keep you alive. I know you think your station is nothing but a joke, but it only takes one desperate man with nothing to lose to decide you’re his only ticket to a better life.”
Shanja’s voice quaked with anger and her eyes burned blue with fury.
“I’m sorry but I…”
Shanja’s movement was a blur. Pain exploded across Daj’s head far worse than anything suffered from the fall. She found herself looking up from the ground once more. Unbidden tears ran down her face.
“I’m not looking for a fucking apology.” Shanja pulled Daj to her feet and pinned her against the wall. “I gave you a second chance, and you promised not the do this again. Yet not four hours later, you betray my trust. What if instead of me, you found a thug wandering down this alley? Who would save your ass then?” She let go and Daj slumped against the wall. “I’m tired of dealing with spoiled bitches.”
“I didn’t,” Daj stammered, sobbing heavily through the pain. “I didn’t know if I could trust you.”
“Trust me?” Shanja asked, her voice edged with venom. “When have I ever given you reason not to trust me? What could be so important you’d risk your life avoiding the people trying to keep you alive?”
“The Secretariat of Finance is involved in corruption and I plan to expose it,” Daj stammered in a single breath. “And you, you’re employed by them. I didn’t know how you’d react.”
She breathed heavily trying to compose herself. Tears continued to stain her cheeks and sobs wracked her body.
“You angel damned idiot,” Shanja swore crouching in front of Daj. “What were you planning to do, saunter on down to the local post and drop off the evidence with the first reporter you found?”
Daj nodded. It didn’t seem like a bad plan but Shanja’s tone indicated otherwise.
“Look at yourself. Your skirt is torn and your hands are bleeding. You wouldn’t make it halfway down the block without drawing attention to yourself. And what if the reporter instead takes this information back to the accused to extort money out of them? Or decides to sell you out instead?” Shanja asked. “These things have to be handled with care, with people you trust.”
“What do you know of corruption?” Daj spat, rubbing her eyes clear. “Sure, you’re always around magistrates but you don’t see the inner workings, how petty and corrupt they all are. I’m trying to fix things.”
Wind rushed down the alley, pelting them with stinging sand. Long strands of Shanja’s hair whipped through the air violently and her short skirt rippled around her waist, but she stood heedless to the wind, as if carved from diamond. Only her eyes showed the slightest hint of expression. Sorrow and fury.
“Do not speak to me as if I were some ignorant wench. I have seen what men of power are willing to do to maintain it.” Shanja’s words weren’t more than a whisper, yet they cut through the wind as if it too felt her sorrow. “I was a soldier during the Battle of Caldor Pass.”
“Caldor Pass?” Daj asked, confused. “What made it different from any other battle?”
“You privileged really do live in your own world, don’t you?”
“Our own world?” Daj snarled. “I’m trying to help the common folk.”
“No, you’re playing a game you haven’t even begun to comprehend. When the pieces fall into place, you won’t want to give up your power and privilege. Elites like you show up, claiming they want to fix all that’s wrong in the world, but once you tally up the costs, you’ll change your mind every time,” Shanja said. “If you want to know about Caldor Pass and what elites think of common folk, I’ll tell you. But don’t go crying when I break your pretty sensibilities.”
Shanja rose to her feet towering above Daj, a silhouette of angel light encircling her. She looked heroic, yet much older. Like a painting of an ancient warrior rendered by disillusioned hands.
“Do you know anything about modern warfare? Of world shapers and light breakers?” she asked.
Daj fumbled over her words, caught off guard by the question. “World shapers are just powerful conduits and light breakers are warriors trained to hunt conduits.”
“Close enough, though comparing conduits to world shapers is akin to comparing worms to pythons. Modern armies are made of four components: soldiers, conduits, light breakers, and a world shaper. Soldiers make up the bulk but mostly act as conduit fodder, who are in turn hunted by light breakers, while world shapers sit on the sidelines. A single world shaper could destroy an entire army but very rarely do they use such power. No, each side fields a world shaper for the singular purpose of ensuring the other doesn’t use theirs.”
Shanja looked down the alley toward the angels’ grave, toward Caldor.
“Caldor is a harsh and barren land. The angels’ light gives us life and heat, but that close to the grave, it burns and blackens the very ground. Constant exposure to such power creates strong conduits, far stronger than our own.” Shanja turned back to Daj, her eyes burning with fury. “They sought to use their might to seek paradise. Just a small portion of our fertile land so they too could lead an easy life. I’m sure they thought themselves deserving of it after centuries of strife.
“We held them off at Caldor Pass, a narrow trade route built nearer to this country’s founding than to now. The battle wasn’t going well and General Zejithal grew desperate. He ordered twenty light breakers, nearly half our nation’s number, to attack the Caldorian world shaper. A death sentence, world shapers simply don’t die in battle, but they went anyway. Eighteen of them died, and another crippled. But through some miracle, the last of them managed to kill the world shaper.”
Loose gravel trembled an inch above the ground as Shanja spoke. Fear crept into Daj telling her to flee the unhinged conduit before her. She forced the feeling away.
“Here’s the part they always leave out of official records. The entire enemy army surrendered. They fell to their knees, waiting to be taken prisoner. But General Zejithal didn’t want prisoners, he wanted to send a message and to appear strong before his superiors. It couldn’t be known how close he’d come to defeat, he needed a decisive victory. So he ordered our world shaper, Kaljin, to give him one. The ground split apart and lava erupted from the earth, consuming them. In an instant, thousands died.”
Bile filled Daj’s mouth. After the battle, Zejithal and Kaljin had been welcomed back as war heroes, not murderers. They even planned to celebrate Kaljin’s retirement and legacy with a parade.
“These are the type of men you fight against, Daj,” Shanja said, calming the tempest around her. “They won’t hesitate to kill if they see you as a threat to their power. Even the sweetest of magistrates is hollow at their core. Are you sure this is the course you want to follow?”
Daj choked back the sick feeling rising within her. “That’s why I need to do this. We can’t continue to allow monsters to rule us. This is only a small step, but maybe it’ll spark something within the masses and they’ll finally act.”
“I’m not convinced you’ll benefit from such action,” Shanja said, helping Daj to her feet. “Who knows you’ve been looking into this?”
“Only my mother and Nalan.”
“Nalan is a snake, but he’s not the kind to expose you,” Shanja said with a grimace. “Give me the evidence and I’ll see that it gets to the proper hands.”
“You’re not going to leave me?”
“No, your heart's in the right place, even if your head is filled with sand,” Shanja answered. “But if you ever sneak out on me again, I won’t look back.”
Daj nodded and handed over the documents. “You have contacts in the press?”
“I know of a few honest reporters. I’ll get these onto one of their desks without being seen, so there’s no evidence to trace this back to you,” Shanja answered, stuffing the papers into a pouch on her belt. They’d be a wrinkled mess when she withdrew them. “How are you planning on getting back to your room?”
Daj paled. She’d been so focused on escaping she hadn’t considered how to get back in.
“Ixcel’s Flame, don’t try anything like this again. You’re not cut out for espionage,” Shanja said, holding her hand out. “Hold onto me. I’ll take you up.”
Daj wrapped her arms around Shanja’s slender waist, confused. Shanja couldn’t fly without a stabilizing plate could she?
As if in answer, they immediately shot upward, far faster than falling had been. As they crossed the balcony, Shanja guided them forward with seemingly effortless precision and deposited Daj onto the ground.
Shanja controled angel light with a precision Daj could scarcely comprehend. What a wonder she’d be on the dance floor. She turned to say as much but found only the wind.