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Summer heat retreated before the cool of night. On top of a small hill stood a noble mansion, tall and statuesque among the fields and trees that surrounded it. Lights flickered through windows on the lower floors, but no sign of human life could be seen.
Inside, in a bedroom on the second floor, slept Sita Newbury, the heir of the ancient House of Awle. She tossed in her sleep, her long golden hair tangled around her throat. Fine sheets of red satin covered her slim figure, the light material keeping her cool in the late July heat.
Sita turned onto her side, still dreaming, sweat beaded on her brow. A word escaped through her lips: “Owen . . . ”
Another dream began to intrude, chasing away the memories of battles, enemies, and lost lovers. This dream entangled her mind so fully that she began to rise to wakefulness. A woman in the dream—impossibly tall, her dark brown skin glowing softly, eyes full of the universe—called out to her. “Sita. Come to me. I must speak with you. Come to me on the lake.” Sita resisted. Her warm bed embraced her, kept her safe and calm. Why should she leave it in the middle of the night?
“Sita,” the woman called, even louder now. “Sita, come to me now. It is urgent.”
Finally Sita’s eyes opened. The dream stuck with her. She knew the figure, and knew she couldn’t refuse the demand of a goddess. “Fine, fine, fine,” she said. Grumbling to herself, Sita rose from the bed and stumbled into her closet. She lit the lights with a wave of her hand, her power and the house’s inherent magic combining to do the task for her. She thumbed through her clothes before grabbing a simple dress and pulling it on.
An insistent wordless urging crashed against her like wave on a beach. The force of the pounding set Sita’s stomach roiling. She frowned and tsked. “I’m coming, I’m coming!” she said to the air. Shaking her head, the young woman walked through the hall and down the stairs to the foyer. “Stupid Corá, interrupting my sleep. Why can’t she save this for normal hours?” The front door opened of its own accord, the magical house doing its duty by its mistress.
Guided by a bright moon, Sita ambled down a wide field toward the lake to the east of her mansion, the water hidden within the forest. Compared to the heat of the summer days, Sita welcomed the coolness of the night air and was glad to find she was comfortable in just the dress. Moonlight enhanced the waist-length hair flowing behind her. As she entered the forest she discovered the lake through the trees.
Sita picked her way through the last of the grass and reeds by the lake’s shore. The feel of the cool plants and just-damp dirt between her toes made her grin with pleasure. Tiny waves rolled onto the muddy shore, creating a soothing aquatic song. Her hemline would be ruined, and she would make sure Corá heard a great deal about the subject before she left tonight. This was, after all, the Lady Corá’s idea.
The woods around her breathed with life, even in the middle of the night. Crickets chirped all around, and fireflies illuminated the trunks of trees with yellow dots. Night fliers winged their silent ways through the shadowed branches. An owl hooted nearby.
A ripple on the water caught Sita’s attention. She stepped closer to the lake, the cold liquid just lapping at her toes. Something began to rise from the water. Sita waited impatiently.
Finally the goddess Corá floated above the lake, her feet just on the surface. Her body was transparent, which only made sense—she was made of the clear blue waters, and moonlight shone straight through her. The being walked over the water. Droplets sprayed off her form in an invisible breeze. “Thank you for coming,” said Corá. The multi-toned voice of the goddess felt like a caress across the skin, and Sita noticed that the lake and forest seemed brighter and more vibrant when the goddess spoke.
Sita crossed her arms and stuck out her chin. “Do you realize what time it is? I was asleep.”
“I apologize, but I need to speak with you, Sita. I promise it is important.”
“It better be,” Sita grumbled. “Oh, and thanks to you, my hem is ruined. Just had to tell you that.”
Corá crossed her own watery arms. “The more you complain, little Earth child, the longer you will be out here, my dear.” Sita sighed and allowed her shoulders to slump just slightly. Satisfied, Corá continued. “I need to warn you. There is something happening, something that could change life on both worlds as we know it.” The droplets flung away from her more rapidly now. “I cannot see what it is, but I feel it building. Darci is planning something that could end life as we know it.”
Sita clenched her hands into fists. “Um, duh. It’s called a war. We know that already. What else’ve you got?”
A drop of water slashed across Sita’s cheek and drew a shallow line of blood. She jumped and touched the cut with a finger. The injury stung, but the pain soon faded and the bleeding stopped.
“Don’t be rude, Sita. When I speak, you should listen. It is not often I give such warnings.” Sita bowed her head, placating the goddess. “Now, this is not about the war, not exactly. This is something bigger, more heinous, more . . . well, evil.
“I fear for my sister, Earth, as you call her. The nature of this evil is aimed at her. I am sorry I cannot tell you anything more specific, but I am not a strong seer, and I only See the things relevant to me and mine.”
Sita groaned. “Let me guess. You want me to do something about it, right?”
“In a way. Just see what you can observe.” The water of Corá’s body ran in slow swirls around her face. “Also, you should consider bringing those you love here to Corá to live with you.”
“What do you mean?”
The swirls across Corá’s watery skin moved faster, creating stronger currents and distorting her features. Waves on the lake that had been small and gentle now churned, and more cold water engulfed Sita’s feet. “Have you not been listening? Earth will be attacked. Anyone caught in the crossfire will be destroyed, obliterated. Your safety is here.”
“I don’t think so. I’m going back to school in the fall. What about that?”
“You live here. What do you mean you are going back?”
Sita bit her lip. The goddess was sometimes less understanding of human affairs, such as now. “This is not my home. I’m on vacation. I’m going back home to Maryland in the fall.”
“You should stay here.” Corá stamped a foot, water spraying all over the girl. “Besides, have you not been making the mansion livable?” She shifted to view over Sita’s head. Sita turned to follow her gaze. Trees bent and swayed out of the way at Corá’s command to reveal the mansion’s upper stories. “It looks quite homey to me.” She paused, considering. “Perhaps you do not know this yet, but there is a stable of some size in the far part of your property. You might want to see it.”
Sita’s shoulders drooped. “You’re trying to keep me here, aren’t you?”
The young woman’s features scrunched up into an angry scowl. “I’m going back to school in the fall. I don’t care what you say, I’m going back. My sister is there, my friends are there, and my school is there. I won’t abandon them so I can live here in luxury and boredom.”
Corá’s face of water twisted into a maelstrom. She snarled. “Stop being so selfish and do your duty. You were born to protect my sister, you were born to protect me, so do it!”
Just as the goddess reached out to embrace her, Sita ran into the forest and back to the mansion, leaving a distraught Corá behind.
As Sita sat at her dining room table the next morning, Corá’s words still rang through mind. For the past fortnight, she had been living in her inherited mansion in the magical world all by herself. Her friends from university had barely contacted her, or she them. She gulped some orange juice. She would see them again soon enough. After the battles a few weeks ago, we all need a break from each other for a little, Sita thought to herself. She sighed and stirred her cup of coffee. Still, it would be nice to have some company around here.
A note from Ka’len Lera, the ancient man who was her mentor in magic, appeared on the table in his usual seat across from her. Sita picked it up and read through the spidery writing. “Hrm, no training today again,” she said, her voice a soft murmur in the silence of her mansion. Sita sighed and finished her breakfast.
She left the dishes and food on the table. The house would whisk it away for her, its innate magic taking care of everything in the house from menial chores to major upkeep.
The skirts of her dress flowed around her legs as she walked into the kitchen. Sita smiled. Wearing long, flowing dresses like this would have earned her stares on Earth. Not so here—in Corá, women wore everything from garden trousers to the complicated, enormous hooped-skirt creations of the nobility. Sita was only glad that most women below the rank of baroness didn’t bother with corsets.
Sunlight beckoned her outdoors. With a grin, Sita hurried to change out of her long morning dress and into something more useful. She then gathered a small metal pail full of seed packets, a trowel and hand rake, gloves, and a kerchief from the mud room off the back of the kitchen. The house opened the front door to let her leave.
Sita stepped out the door of her mansion and tied the kerchief around her long hair. She ambled down to the little garden plot just in front of the stone wall around the house. A light breeze carried the fresh earthy scents of the field and woods and the warm sun heated her skin to a pleasant temperature. The garden was bare now, having not been taken care of for centuries while the mansion lay empty. Sita swung the little tin pail, humming to herself while the seed packets slid along the pail’s bottom and the metal tools clinked against the sides.
Squatting down in her blue denim shorts and oversized, old Maryland t-shirt, Sita surveyed the empty ground. Let’s see, I can put the roses at the far end, and the daffodils here, and the lilies . . . A plan in the works, she set to work and began to dig into the soil with her tiny trowel.
Hours later, the sun now high in the sky and the wind strengthening, Sita sat up. Muscles in her back that had tightened from the unfamiliar work ached as she rose. She sat back on her heels and studied her work. Half the garden now held plants from the far end nearest the wall corner and down along the stone wall’s edge. Sita glanced down into the pail and counted the packets of seeds she had left—there were nine. A sigh escaped between the small smile on her lips and her green-blue eyes glowed. It’s going to be so nice to look out the window and see some color in this unending green lawn. She had planted the roses in the corner, followed by a column each of daffodils, crocuses, lavender, and then the lilies.
A shadow fell over her face. Startled, she slid backward and landed with an oomph. Robert’s face stared down at her from above, a lopsided grin on his face and a sparkle in his eyes. “Doing some domestic chores today, are we?” She simply nodded. “What’ve you planted?”
“Nice to see you, too, Robbie.” Sita handed him the empty seed packets.
He flicked through them before giving her a curious glance, one eyebrow raised. “You’ve never gardened before, have you?”
Sita shook her head. “No. Why?”
“No reason,” he replied. He handed the packs back to her. His lithe body leaned against the wall and he watched her stand up in silence. “So what’ve you been up to?”
Sita brushed the dirt and grass off her legs and clothes. “Training. Gardening.” She shrugged. “Reading some books from the library.” She dropped her gaze. “I visited Eric’s grave yesterday morning.”
Rob tensed. “Sita . . . ”
She waved away anything he might say. “Don’t. He just died a few weeks ago. It’s too soon to talk about him. I just . . . I visited his grave because it didn’t feel real.” And because he died defending me from Sandara. How could I not visit him?
Her friend clearly had nothing to say. “So, you’ve decided to live here, then?” he asked, his voice bland.
Sita studied his face for a moment. A stoic mask of polite curiosity waited for her answer. “No, I’m just here on vacation, you know that.” She picked up the tin pail and put her tools back inside. She had had enough of her new garden for the day. “It’s summer at home and I decided to chill out here for a little while. You know, get away from things at home. My sister, Marie, wasn’t exactly pleased when she found out what all was happening. She was so angry when I told her about the excitement she missed two weeks ago.”
Robert chuckled. “No, I suppose she wouldn’t be too happy. But really, it was better she stayed home. War is no place for young girls. And Professors Alan and Sandara were particularly nasty.” Sita’s lip curled at the mention of their erstwhile enemies, now dead these past two weeks by her hands.
The pair began to walk back across the wide expanse of field toward the mansion. Silence walked with them for a few minutes as Sita waited for Robert to tell her why he was here, and Robert waited for her to stop staring at him in that annoying, faintly accusing way. Robert lost. “You could live here, you know. For good, I mean. There’s no rule against that. And it would be nice to see this place brought back to life. I’ve seen some of the written records on it, and it was supposed to be an amazing house back then, when your clan was still around.”
She walked on, watching the grass below her feet. “No,” she said softly. “I can’t. I can’t leave my sister. Especially knowing what I know, about the war and Darci and all. Just because the armies aren’t fighting right now doesn’t mean there isn’t danger. And Darci knows where my family is. I can’t leave Marie on her own; she’d never stand a chance.”
Rob stopped her before she could build into a rant. “I didn’t mean abandon your family, Si. I meant move here, but still keep an eye on your home. It’s what I’ve been doing for years.”
This news brought Sita to a halt. She blinked up at him a few times before she found words. “What, you mean . . . you’ve been living here all this time? I thought you had an apartment in New York.”
He grinned as he pulled her hand to keep her walking. “I do. It’s there for me when I don’t feel like coming back here. I’ve also got an apartment in D.C., so I’m closer to you girls. But I live here most of the time. Actually, my house is near Torthal, a town closer to the capital, Lampros.” Sita nodded. “So you could live here, bring this place back, and just travel between the two planes, like I do. It’s not that hard, I promise.”
Sita gazed at her mansion. Funny, I’ve already started to think of this place as mine. Weird. She opened the door when they reached it, the candles in the foyer coming to life as she stepped through. Uncertain, she looked back at Rob. “I’ll think about it, but I’m just not sure, Rob. It’s a big decision.”
“But you will think about it?” he asked anxiously.
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Why do you want me to move here so much, Robbie? Why’s this so important to you?”
Rob squirmed a little before answering, much to Sita’s amusement. “I think you’d be safest here,” he blurted. “I think you should live here, where your ancestors lived, and bring the mansion back to its glory. It’s still a really magical place, in case you haven’t noticed, even though no one has lived here for centuries except the ghosts. I’d like to see it brought back up, and I’ll help, if you want.”
“Thanks for the offer, but I don’t know. Earth is where I was born. It’s where my family has been since . . . well, forever.” She shrugged. “It’s home, with Marie. How can I abandon it just because Corá is a much cooler and more magical world?” Sita tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. Her blue-green eyes clouded over. “You know, this is the second time in two days someone has tried to convince me to stay here. What is it with you all? Doesn’t anyone care what I want?”
Robert’s brow furrowed. Apprehension glimmered in his eyes. “What do you mean, twice?”
Sita told him about Corá’s late-night visit, waxing eloquent on the subject long enough that she had finished cleaning her tools and putting them away by the time she finished her story.
The young man breathed a deep sigh of relief. Sita didn’t ask why. She still scowled about her visitor last night and paid less attention to her friend. Rob sat down in one of the kitchen’s chairs and relaxed, visibly glad she was no longer interrogating him. “Have you heard from Ka’len?” he asked.
Her expression lightened. “Yes, I have. He was supposed to come today for more training with me, but he canceled. I’m not sure why, his note didn’t say. But he should be here tomorrow.”
“Then what are you going to do for the rest of today?”
Sita shrugged. “I’m not sure.”
“Have you heard from the other Aligerai?”
Mentioning the group of young women did the trick of distracting her from Rob’s earlier comments. Sita joined him at the table, her face brighter. The sunshine streaming through the windows highlighted her golden hair and fair skin. “No, I haven’t heard from anyone. I think I remember that Roxie and Ari were on vacations with their families. I figure you would know more about Allen than I would.” She noticed the empty table and the lunch hour. “You hungry?”
Rob shook his head in reply. “Not really. And as for Allen, I haven’t seen him all that much, actually. I bet he’s spending time with Roxie a lot. They’re still dating pretty heavy, last time I checked.”
“Yeah, maybe he’s with her. Oh well, we can find out as soon as we all get back to school in a few weeks.” She touched the back of Rob’s hand on the table. “Wait, you are coming back, right? You’ll still be around?”
His disbelieving stare was all the answer she needed. “Of course.” Sita smiled at him in relief. She saw his eyes widen and his cheeks redden. She didn’t have time to stop him before he stood up, stammered a quick farewell, and vanished in a flash of light blue magic.
Sita bit her lip. The mention of her school friends—dubbed the Aligerai by the people of Corá, for reasons she still didn’t know—awoke a sense of loneliness that she wasn’t sure how to cure. She grabbed the glass of water that appeared on the table at her wish and climbed the stairs into her library for a few hours of reading before dinner.
Robert exhaled, trying to shake off his uneasiness. He hated deceptions, and this one ran fairly deep. Frown lines had etched themselves into his face over the last few days. This assignment was one of the worst, one of the ones he hated the most.
He stood in the entrance of another mansion, almost as fine as Sita’s, and nearly as large. This house held no magic, however, and he had to open doors himself. Robert walked up the grand staircase in the middle of the foyer’s far side, deep red carpet hushing his steps. Unlit candles for most of the length of the hall made the second floor dark and imposing. Clearly the servants didn’t bother keeping up with the task of cleaning the giant house.
Gold foil covered the ornate woodwork of the door he stopped in front of. Robert knocked on the door after clearing his throat. A voice from inside bade him enter. He tugged on the edges of his shirt and walked inside.
A man sat behind a large wooden desk. Neatly-trimmed graying hair lent him an air of authority. The office’s dark colors of brown, black, and forest green created more shadows instead of dispelling them. Those shadows shrouded the older man in darkness, despite the daylight Robert could see through the window. The impression unnerved him, as he was sure it was meant to.
Rob bowed to the man. “Mr. Knight, reporting as ordered, sir.”
Alexander Knight waved him to a chair. “Be seated, Robert. Relax.” He picked up a pen and turned his dark brown eyes to the small stack of papers on his desk. “Tell me what you have accomplished.”
Knight’s gaze darkened, but there was no other visible sign of his displeasure. Robert’s fingers tightened around his shirt hem.
“Nothing?” Knight asked.
“Correct, sir. I have attempted my task, as ordered. I have been unsuccessful as of yet.”
The older man set down his pen to recline in his chair. Robert knew this apparent sign of relaxation was nothing more than attempt to conceal anger. Knight’s eyes narrowed. “You have attempted your task. So you did speak to Sita Newbury about remaining in Corá?”
“And the bird-woman refused.”
“So far, yes, sir.”
Those dark eyes narrowed further. “How many times have you asked her?”
Rob licked his lips. “Once.”
Knight scowled. He rose from the chair and slammed his hands onto the desk so fast that Robert shrunk back into his chair. “Only once? You dare report this failure to me when you have only tried once?” He sneered. “Are you afraid of her reaction? Afraid she might strike you? Do you truly believe Sita would attack one of her dear friends, even in anger?”
Robert mustered enough strength to answer. “That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.” His voice was thin, and pitched too high for his liking.
“Robert, this assignment is important. I don’t know if that has permeated through your thick brain.” Knight began to regain his composure. He sat back down in his chair, folding his hands tight on the desk’s top. “Sita must remain in Corá. There is no choice in this. If she returns to Earth in the fall, events could take her out of my reach forever.”
Silence fell. Robert struggled to sit straighter in his chair. He managed it just as Alexander Knight returned from his reverie and glared at the younger man. “You will do this again, Robert. You will try again as soon as possible. There is little time left. I have not told you what I suspect the enemy’s plans are, but if I turn out to be right, we need to get Sita, and probably her friends as well, off of Earth and moved here to Corá.”
A wave of his hand brought Robert to his feet. “Try again tomorrow,” Knight said again.
Alexander Knight dismissed him and Robert hurried from the room, closing the door behind him. In the hallway, Robert realized he had sweat through his shirt. Knight’s unpredictable anger scared him more than Sita’s did.