Totem, Part 9

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

“What about the master?” asked Jahi when he and Azibo had sequestered themselves in the boy’s chambers.

The small room was spartan, windowless, and would have been pitch black if Azibo hadn’t used one of the torches outside to light some candles. A low bed stood against one of the far walls—a simple wood furnishing with feline paws for legs, a woolen mattress, and linen sheets—while the straight-backed chair Azibo once sat in to meditate stood against the other.

Azibo didn’t answer, only motioned for Jahi to take the chair. Azibo himself sat on the mattress, and proceeded to stare at the diplomat until the man fidgeted in his seat.

He’s just as frightened as I am, thought Azibo. But still, he was afraid to speak. He’d seen fear do strange things to people, and though he’d peered into Jahi’s mind on more than one occasion and knew he was just as concerned about the master as Azibo was, one wrong move might send Jahi scrambling to report him. He had to tread carefully.

Azibo opened his mind for a moment, hoping to use whatever the man was thinking as a launching point for their conversation.

How long? Jahi thought. How long before the master comes for me, too? He’s crazy. I served him faithfully for years, and still, he suspects me as much as anyone else.

The master was suspicious of Jahi? That was a revelation. A guilty hope sparked within Azibo. If that was true, it meant the master’s suspicions were more general in nature and not aimed toward himself. Then Azibo made another realization and felt a second stab of guilt.

He was manipulating Jahi the way the master manipulated everyone else. Did that make him no better than the monster who’d murdered all those innocent people? Azibo wrestled with himself for a moment before tossing the thought aside.

It’s for a good cause.

And yet, he wondered if there’d been a point in the master’s life when he’d told himself the same thing.

“The master hasn’t been himself,” Azibo said at last, considering his words carefully. Like a politician, he thought. “Aren’t you worried he might come after you just like he’s come after so many of the other servants?”

A fire kindled in Jahi’s eyes. Azibo had struck a cord, all right, but was it the right one?

Azibo tried to read him again, but all he could pick up on was that the man had been stunned by his last statement, which had so closely mirrored Jahi’s own thoughts.

Careful, thought Azibo. Don’t rush. Don’t scare the man away.

“It’s just that I’m afraid. Who’s to say he won’t take me prisoner next? I don’t know what to do.”

Jahi took a deep breath and was silent for a while. Once more, Azibo listened to his thoughts.

Is not even this boy safe from that mad man? All these years with the master, and I feel like I don’t know him at all.

At last Jahi spoke.

“What do you want me to do about it?”

Azibo’s pulse quickened. If he asked Jahi to help him overthrow the master now, would he say yes? He struggled to maintain patience. He couldn’t just come out and ask. He had to lead the man on a bit longer.

“What do you think we should do?”

Jahi’s mind began to turn.

What can anyone do? My whole career at the master’s service, and even that isn’t enough to place me above suspicion. I gave him everything, and now I can’t say for sure if I’ll live through the week. So many servants and advisers missing already. Will I be next? And what about the boy?

Jahi’s eyes narrowed as he scrutinized Azibo more closely.

When the master and I first met, he told me even Azibo would plot against him if he could. Is that what this is? Is the boy asking me to help him overthrow the master? And what would I say if he asked?

Jahi shuddered.

Dangerous thoughts. Mutinous thoughts. If the master knew…

And then Jahi turned white with fear.

The master. He can read my thoughts. What if he’s doing so right now?

So, Jahi already knew the master could read minds. That was interesting. He considered telling the man his own secret, then decided against it. Right now, it was his only advantage. If the secret got out, his advantage would disappear along with it. And who was to say Jahi wouldn’t turn against him and report him to the master after all? He didn’t think Jahi was that kind of man, but he wasn’t willing to take a chance.

At any rate, Azibo thought now would be a good time to interject.

“What if I told you the master was away? What if I told you that, for the time being at least, we have the estate to ourselves?”

“What?” Jahi sounded surprised. “No, he would have told me if he’d left.”

Then Azibo heard Jahi think better of himself. Paranoid and trusting no one, the master had ignored them both for a while. Jahi knew as well as Azibo that he wouldn’t have revealed his plans to anyone, not even to one of his most favored servants.

“I saw him,” Azibo lied. “Last night. I couldn’t sleep. I was wandering the halls, restless, and I caught sight of the master outside, loading a donkey and riding off into the night.”

Jahi sagged with a certain measure of relief. If the master was away, Azibo felt him reason, that meant he couldn’t know about their conversation now.

Azibo watched everything unfold inside Jahi’s mind, and he fought to suppress an unexpected smile. What a power. With it, he could do almost anything. With the master out of the way, there was nothing he couldn’t accomplish. Maybe, with time, he could even…

No!

With frightening clarity, Azibo was certain the master had, once upon a time, trod the same path, that his willingness to use this special power had transformed him into the monster he was today. Azibo had no desire to be like him.

I just have to use that power this one time to get Jahi on my side. Then, he told himself, he would never use it again.

“So,” said Jahi after a prolonged period of silence, “the master is away. What does that have to do with me?”

The man’s voice was level, calm. But inside, Azibo sensed a mounting tension. The man was scared of what the master might do to him if he did nothing; but he was also scared of what the master might do to him if he did. He was caught between two equally dangerous choices, an impossible position unless Azibo could tilt the scales in favor of the choice he wanted Jahi to make.

“I’m afraid,” said Azibo, “that when the master returns, he’ll decide I’m more trouble than I’m worth. He’s already stopped teaching me about magic. I don’t think it’ll be much longer before he decides to get rid of me. And you…” Azibo shrugged. “Well, maybe you’re safe. After all, you’ve been faithful to him for years. Surely he still has use for you.”

That last sentence was more of a question than a statement, and Azibo didn’t need Jahi’s thoughts to know the man understood what his true fate would likely be. Now, Azibo just had to make it clear that there was a viable alternative. Then, he hoped, Jahi would side with him.

“Of course, if we were to prepare, if we were to take the master by surprise when he returns…”

Jahi shot to his feet, face red.

“Then we could overthrow him. That’s what you’re going to say, isn’t it? Take the master out before he can take us out?”

The outburst startled Azibo, and he sank back toward the wall without realizing it. Had he pushed too hard? Had he gotten to the point too quickly? A lump formed in the back of his throat, and he found it difficult to swallow. Jahi could call the guards and have him arrested. He could tell the master what had transpired between them as soon as he returned, and then it would all be over.

The nerve, thought Jahi. The master’s own apprentice! He was right to be paranoid. Except, haven’t I been considering the same solution? Wouldn’t anyone, when every day might be their last? Dammit, what am I supposed to do now?

“Jahi—”

“Leave me alone. I have to think.”

“Jahi, please—”

“I said leave me alone!”

Stunned, and with his heart lodged firmly in the back of his throat, Azibo watched the man push past him and out the door.

*               *               *

Azibo stopped his story there, and the other birds all stared at him as if they’d just met him for the first time. So much plotting and calculation from one so young. What other secrets did the youth possess? The sun had set a while ago, but the sky, lit by hundreds of streetlights below, glowed a dull, burnished copper.

Jahi was the first to break the silence between them.

I feel like I should be angry, except I think I already knew you were manipulating me and I let it happen anyway. You were right. The master needed to be overthrown, and a part of me knew that even then.

Little Azibo, mused Zane, who could think of nothing else to say.

Azibo, for his part, looked abashed.

Jahi, Rashidi continued, why did you decide to help him? You might have saved yourself if you’d reported him.

I couldn’t do that, Jahi replied. By then, I already suspected Azibo might be the one the master was looking for: the one who’d entered his dream by accident. But that didn’t justify the master’s response. So many servants disappeared for no more reason than the master was paranoid, and how long would it have been before he decided to come after me, too? And the rest of us?

And he was already suspicious of me. Never mind that I was faithful, that only recently he’d entrusted me with his secret because he wanted me to help him find the other person who could read minds like himself. Only a couple days prior to my conversation with Azibo, he’d called me into his study and, perhaps because he knew I had my doubts, he asked me if I, too, would betray him if given the opportunity. Before I could argue that I was loyal, he turned me away and didn’t send for me again.

The others listened in silence, attentive as Jahi picked up his part of the story.

Read part 10 here.

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You Choose What I Write

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Every time I post a piece of flash fiction on the blog, I receive private messages and emails from people who want to know if I’m going to turn it into a longer story. Sometimes, I do. Examples include Caleb (a novel in progress and a rough draft I’m already sharing on Patreon), Dying Breath (now a short story released on Amazon, Kobo, Google Play, and Barnes & Noble), and Totem (now an ongoing flash fiction serial.) Other times, I don’t. My flash fiction is a way for me to explore new ideas, and unfortunately, it’s impossible for me to turn all of them into something bigger.

However, if you were absolutely enthralled by a piece you read on the blog and need to read more, there is a way to get what you want.

In exchange for a $5 pledge on Patreon, I’ll turn the flash fiction piece of your choice into a longer story.

This is how Dying Breath got its start. Though it was only a piece of flash fiction when I originally wrote it, a generous patron at the $5 level asked me for more. I loved the result so much that I ended up releasing it to the world.

It’s an amazing deal for both of us. You get more of the story you love and I get closer to making a living writing fiction.

I’ve shared in the past how I operate at a significant loss. I make roughly $300 per month from my stories (mostly thanks to my amazing patrons), but spend almost $2,000 per month on advertising and hosting. This doesn’t include the one-off costs required to pay for editors and illustrators when I release new books. I’ll continue to do this for as long as I can, because I love what I do, and because I’m thrilled to have touched so many hearts through my stories. But I would give anything to be a full-time writer, and if I could narrow the gap between what I make and what I spend each month, I would be well on my way to meeting that goal, which means more books released more often.

If you can’t afford to support me at the $5 level, there are other less expensive rewards. For example, the $2 level entitles you to a free digital copy of every book I write for as long as you’re a patron. You also get to read rough drafts of every story I write before it’s published (I’ve already shared a ton of drafts on Patreon that haven’t been released to the public yet) and will have your name placed in the acknowledgments of every book I publish.

To learn more and to become a patron, click the “Become a Patron” button below.

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The Blight

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Imagine: Green, all-encompassing, ever reaching. A place of endless spring. A place of fertile hopes and breathless wonders. A billowing canopy of shimmering translucent leaves, casting a bright and verdant glow over the forest floor below.

Such had been the nature of the world before the Blight.

Now the light that loomed over Angeline was faint, a sickly, mottled soup of barren browns and grays. A forest of dead things, covered from ground to canopy in a dark, cloying mold first discovered in their sacred woods almost three hundred years ago.

Angeline’s heart broke to see her home in such a state, for she was old enough to remember the Age before it. That’s why she was here now, to fight back, to reclaim what was hers and her people’s by birthright.

She cupped her hands to her mouth and called out to the trees. “Andre? Are you there?”

A branch snapped behind her, heralding his arrival.

The man who faced her when she turned was dark, skin festooned with mold and scabs. He wore no clothes. Clothes were an invention of civilization, and the forest had not seen civilization for quite some time.

“Angeline.” The man bowed.

“There’s no place for formalities here,” she said, but the corners of her mouth had already curled into the barest flicker of a smile.

Andre was a good man and loyal to a fault, so much so that he’d stayed behind to take care of the forest long after the rest of their people had fled into the mountains on the coast.

The Blight would, of course, extend even that far in time. Every year, the nauseating mold crept closer, penning them into an ever shrinking perimeter. But for now, at least, they were safe.

When Angeline had asked Andre why he’d chosen to remain, he’d only said, “The forest is my home. I can’t leave.”

Angeline admired the man’s courage, and it was the reason why she herself hadn’t given up, the reason why she’d returned every day to battle the Blight that had made their forest uninhabitable.

“Shall we go?” she asked. Her voice was just as regal, just as serene as it had been when she was queen.

Andre nodded, and together they set off into the thickening trees.

“So much death,” the man lamented, and Angeline placed a comforting hand over his weathered shoulders.

“That’s why we’re here,” she reminded him. “To reverse the damage so the forest might live again.”

The forest grew darker as they delved deeper into its heart. The light that filtered through the skeletal branches never changed. Rather, the darkness of the Blight itself radiated from the forest’s center like a fever.

“I hate coming here,” said Andre.

So did Angeline, but she didn’t say so. The man looked up to her. He’d never stopped seeing the queen she’d been centuries ago.

“You’re a hero,” she said. “Someday, our people will sing songs of your bravery.”

“I don’t care about that. I just want our home to be what it once was. I want future generations to know life and light, not this…” He gestured helplessly at the bare trees. “This nightmare.”

“And that is exactly why you’ll succeed—why both of us will succeed—because we don’t work for accolades but for a world we love and refuse to let die.”

They halted before a massive, world-sized trunk. It towered well above the other trees, its own leafless branches soaring high into the clouds. As thick as it was tall, the part closest to the ground resembled a wall more than a tree, its massive curves lost to the horizon.

There was almost no light left here, only a soupy, cloying black that covered every inch of the bark in thick ropy webs that held the entirety of the forest in a fatal chokehold.

“Disgusting,” Andre spat.

“And yet,” Angeline replied, “I sense life still. Faint, guttering, but stronger than the last time we were here. Our work has accomplished something. It has not been in vain.”

“Right.” Andre edged closer, repelled by the rot and corruption but determined to face it in battle. “Then I guess we’d better get started.”

Angeline and Andre placed their hands over the craggy surface of the bark. Both of them recoiled as the Blight reached out and tried to take hold of them, as the Blight tried to squeeze out their own lives as it had squeezed out the lives of the surrounding trees. But one warning glare from Angeline was all it took to send those dark feelers reeling back.

Closing her eyes, she focused on the soul she sensed inside the tree, the heart of their world and the source of their people’s strength. It hunkered against the dark, hanging on by only the faintest of breaths. Angeline called out to it and shared with it her ancient song.

O Noble Soul,
O Gentle Spirit,
Source of Life
And source of Light:
Have strength.

A moment later, Andre joined her.

O Noble Soul,
O Gentle Spirit,
Source of Life
And source of Light:
Have strength.

The Blight wrapped itself tighter around the forest, dimming what little light remained. But Andre and Angeline refused to be intimidated, and instead sang even louder.

O Noble Soul,
O Gentle Spirit,
Source of Life
And source of Light:

Have strength.

They finished together, their voices a joyful alloy of faith and hope that they knew the Blight would find repulsive.

Now that their song was finished, the momentum that had been building between them surged into the tree like lightning. The Blight staggered, reeled, and for a moment the soul inside the tree flared with new light.

Together, they opened their eyes.

“Look,” said Angeline, pointing to a tiny shoot of green at the tree’s base. It was the first new growth either of them had seen since the Blight had first taken hold. The mold reached out and tried to smother it, but the scion only shook it off like a spot of dirt.

“Will it be enough?” Andre asked.

“Yes,” she said. “I believe it will. If not, then what are we doing here, and what else is there but despair?”

Andre nodded.

“Then I, too, believe.”

With those last words shared between them, they turned and made their way back to the forest’s perimeter.

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Freedom

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Fingers feeling, reaching. Hands clawing, digging. Arms pulling, stretching. Finally the world heaved, and Samantha pulled herself up to the surface.

Free.

Samantha was free.

She fell to the cold, coarse dirt beneath the silver light of the moon and cried.

How long had that foul, rancid creature held her captive beneath the earth? How much time had passed on the outside while she howled and screamed, the sound stifled by the dozens of feet of soil and stone piled on top of her as she languished in her underground prison?

The creature had called her its bride, and then it had laughed, a soft, crawling sound that slithered through the dark. Then it had gone to sleep, and while it slumbered, she’d dug her way to freedom, holding her nose in a futile attempt to ward against the creature’s stink as time melted and slipped around her.

And now she was free.

Exhausted, she couldn’t walk, couldn’t even stand. But she wouldn’t stay here, not when the creature might wake and pull her back down. So she crawled. On her hands and knees, she crawled. In tattered, soil-stained clothes, she crawled.

One arm forward, then the other. A slow but steady pace, almost a rhythm. The grim, gritty work took her mind off the terror, the trauma, the pain, and she found herself gaining momentum, tapping into reserves she thought she’d depleted long ago.

Soon she was testing her feet. She stumbled. Righted herself. Took two and a half unsteady steps. Then she pitched forward onto her hands and knees once more.

Pain: sharp, sudden. An image of the creature’s hands around her neck flared in her mind like a strobe. The terror it evoked drove her back to her feet, until she was running, on and on into endless dark.

*               *               *

On six legs and seven arms, the creature rose, surveying the moonlit field with devilish delight.

Free.

The creature was free.

Eons had passed since it had seen the world last, and it was eager to be off. It found the hunt for its bride exhilarating, and it would relish every moment of the chase.

It caught the scent of the human named Samantha and bounded off in pursuit, on and on into endless dark.

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Totem, Part 8

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

During the next few months, the master grew cold and distant. Our lessons continued for a while, but it seemed that with each passing day, he lost interest. I could see in his mind that he didn’t trust me—that he didn’t trust anyone—and I was focusing every ounce of my will on keeping what I knew hidden from him. Finally, the day came when he no longer summoned me at all.

I was convinced it was because he’d discovered my secret. I knew from my vision while meditating that he could read minds, and I was sure I could feel him trying to read mine over and over again over the course of my studies. When servants and guards started disappearing, when people started whispering that the master had gone crazy and that it was only a matter of time before he took them too, I was sure he would come for me.

That was when he finally called me back into his study.

*               *               *

Azibo stared at the servant at his door, gaping like a fish.

“What?” he asked, even though he’d heard the man the first time.

“I said, the master requests your presence.”

Still Azibo stared, as if time had stood still, as if he now had an indefinite period to worry about the master’s summons and what it might mean. He peered first into the servant’s eyes, then down at the simple flax shenti wrapped around the servant’s waist. All he could think now was: Oh no, the master’s got me.

“Sir?”

Startled, Azibo reached into his mind to see if he could find out what the master wanted.

Nothing. This servant doesn’t know any more than I do.

A deep, shuddering breath. Whatever his fate, he decided, he had no choice but to face the man and hope his secret remained safe. Please, he thought, a hasty prayer offered to the gods. Then he allowed the servant to lead him away.

When the door to the master’s study opened and Azibo was announced, the boy immediately felt that itch at the back of his head.

He’s trying to read me again.

He could never be certain if it was just his imagination or if the sensation was real, but he immediately diverted his thoughts elsewhere: to his studies, which he’d been neglecting since the master had stopped teaching him; to his parents, whom he missed and would do anything to see again. He could feel the master’s thoughts, swirling about the room like a dark miasma, but he refrained from reaching for them. Only when he was sure the master’s guard was down would he attempt to listen.

They stared at each other for a while in silence. Finally, the master dismissed his servant, who closed the door behind him, and motioned for Azibo to sit.

“I must apologize,” he said, inclining his head. “I’ve neglected your studies.”

“It’s okay, sir.” Azibo hated how he couldn’t seem to catch his breath, how his palms remained slick with sweat, how his breath caught in the back of an arid throat whenever he opened his mouth to speak. Surely, the master must sense his hesitation—that itch at the back of his head was still there, vibrating now like a hoard of angry bees. But if the man knew what was worrying him, he didn’t let on.

“Have you been practicing your meditation exercises?”

“No,” said Azibo, who offered the truth without hesitation. Not since that terrifying vision had he dared to risk another unguarded encounter with the man’s mind.

The master nodded, as if he hadn’t expected any other answer.

“I suspected as much. My fault, I suppose.”

Still, that terrible itching. Azibo did everything in his power to throw up decoy thoughts like a shield, not knowing if such a trick would work but hoping and praying he could avert the master’s preternatural gaze.

“I’ve been busy,” the master continued, eyes fastened to Azibo’s. “Lots of work to do, you understand.” Still, his eyes remained fixed.

Azibo swallowed.

He doesn’t want to talk to me. He wants to read my mind. He wants to see if I’m the one he’s been looking for.

The thought bubbled into his mind before he could stop it, and as the itch at the back of his head intensified, he scrambled to recover his mental façade before he could give himself away.

The master peered at him for almost five minutes, as if Azibo were a puzzle that might solve itself if only he stared at it long enough. Finally, the man sighed and looked away.

“Go,” he said, waving a curt dismissal. “I have things to attend to. Practice your meditation exercises. We’ll continue our lessons soon.”

“Yes, sir.” All at once, the itch was gone.

He doesn’t know! He tried to read my mind, but I blocked him, and he doesn’t know!

Azibo had to fight to suppress the stupid, goofball grin that threatened to erupt from his suddenly relaxed features. Safe. For now, at least, he was safe.

Still, he could feel the master’s thoughts. So close. So accessible. So many dark and powerful secrets, there for the taking. Azibo finally risked a peek. He reached out, a skill he’d started honing since his first unexpected encounter with the workings of the master’s mind. He probed along their surface, gently, carefully…

Irritation. The master was annoyed. Talking to the boy had been a waste of time. He’d learned nothing, nothing! He’d thought maybe, perhaps… No, not the boy. Someone else. Someone in his midst surely, but not this simpering, mewling, homesick excuse for a boy. One of his servants? Or one of his advisers? Why couldn’t he ferret out the rogue individual? Why?

Rage. Then terror. A rival, the first in over a century, someone who might stand up to him and strike him down at the height of his power. He had to go someplace else. Had to flee the estate. Had to spend time meditating in the presence of Isis and Osiris. Had to clear his mind. Had to develop the calm clarity necessary to discover who his rival was so he could kill him…

Tomorrow. He would leave tomorrow. He wouldn’t tell any of his servants. A week. No, two. Three. He wouldn’t even tell Jahi. A secret for him alone. Yes, tomorrow. He would leave tomorrow.

“Why are you still here?” the master snapped.

Startled, Azibo’s connection to his mind evaporated like steam.

“Sorry, sir. I was just thinking…wondering…”

“Get out!” the master bellowed.

Azibo bolted and slammed the door behind him.

*               *               *

I returned to my room that night, Azibo continued, addressing Rashidi, Jahi, Zane, Chibale, and Kasim, each in their turn. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stay calm. I was the only one who knew the master would be going away. Once I got over my relief that he hadn’t discovered my secret, I realized it was a perfect opportunity, maybe my only opportunity, to take him down before he could do the same to me.

I thought, “I need to talk to Jahi.” He was the only person who still saw the master regularly after our lessons had stopped, and I would pry into his mind as often as I could, hoping to tease out some secret, some advantage I might be able to leverage against the master later. That was how I discovered he had doubts of his own about what the master was up to. I thought, maybe together, in the master’s absence, we could come up with a plan, some way to take the master by surprise when he returned.

I lay awake the rest of the night, pondering how I might approach him in the morning.

*               *               *

The first thing Azibo did the following day was to confirm that the master had truly gone. So gradually, methodically, he spent the morning creeping through various parts of the estate, slinking into rooms he’d never been allowed into before, his tour finally ending in the master’s study. That last door he opened with some trepidation, for if the man was still there and caught him, he would be in a lot of trouble. But the room was dark and empty, the candles all extinguished in the master’s absence, and all at once Azibo was overtaken by an ocean of adrenaline.

Jahi. I have to find Jahi.

Azibo found him outside, leaning against a colorfully striped column overlooking a small pond. The man’s gaze was fixed on the tranquil waters, and Azibo could feel that his thoughts were troubled and distant.

“Jahi?”

The man whirled.

“Sorry,” said Azibo. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

The man looked at him for a moment, then returned his eyes to the water.

“What do you want?” Jahi asked.

“I need to talk to you.”

“Not now. I’m busy.”

Frustration blossomed. But tapping into a slow breathing technique the master had showed him, Azibo worked hard to keep the emotion under control. He needed Jahi, and making the man angry would undermine his purpose.

“Please, Jahi. It’s about the master.”

Once more, the man turned.

“What about the master?”

“I think it’s better if we discuss in private.”

Jahi’s eyes narrowed, forming a silent question, but Azibo refused to elaborate. This was not something to talk about in the open.

“Fine,” Jahi breathed at last. “We’ll talk in your chambers.”

Read part 9 here.

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