No, no, that can’t be right, I thought to myself, clutching the sheets as ice crystalized inside my veins. People didn’t disappear. Not really. They went missing, sure, but they didn’t just vanish off the face of the planet. The idea that Iannis had disappeared, along with an entire dirigible of people, was impossible. He wasn’t gone. He couldn’t be.
“Sunaya.” Lakin’s hand was gentle as it pressed against my arm. His yellow-orange shifter eyes narrowed in concern. I could feel the weight of all my friends’ eyes on me as well, who were gathered around my bed. “You’re shredding the sheets.”
I tore my gaze away from the messenger who’d delivered the news and looked down at my hands. Sure enough, my panther claws had extended, ripping through the comforter and sheets of my infirmary cot. Taking a deep breath, I slowly uncurled my fists from around the once-pristine white cloth, then tucked them beneath my armpits – I was ice-cold, something that was highly unusual for me. I didn’t know if it was because I was still recovering from a near-lethal dose of silver poisoning, or because of the news I’d just heard.
“Disappeared?” Director Chen demanded, voicing the words I was too stunned to utter. “That doesn’t make any sense. A dirigible is too large a contraption to simply go up in thin air, not without the assistance of extremely powerful magic. The Resistance doesn’t have access to that kind of power.”
The Resistance. Guilt flooded me. By Magorah, but this was all my fault. I’d failed to warn Iannis about the threat Rylan had delivered to me, the warning that I shouldn’t accompany Iannis to the bi-annual Convention if I valued my life. I should have told him right away, but the Shifter Royale investigation had taken nearly all of my attention. Every time I’d had a chance to talk to him over the past few days, I’d been distracted with what seemed like, at the time, extremely urgent matters. I felt like the biggest idiot in Solantha for allowing this to happen.
“Clearly the Resistance does have that kind of power,” I snapped, finally finding my voice again. “If not by magical means, they’ve found some other way to intercept that dirigible. If it didn’t make it to the Convention with so many powerful mages aboard, something terrible must have happened. We have to find it.” I pushed back the covers and struggled out of bed.
Director Chen held up a hand, and a gust of magic-laced wind smacked me flat back against the bed. “If by ‘we’ you mean myself and the Council, then yes, I agree we have to find it. But you are still recovering from an attack on your life, Miss Baine. If you come before the Council in your current state, no one will take you seriously. I suggest you stay here and regain some of your strength first.”
“Like hell I will,” I snarled, vaulting up off the bed, but Director Chen blasted me again, and I fell back against the pillows once more. Without another word, she swept out of the room, her bright silk robes billowing behind her. The messenger was quick to follow, and Fenris, after shooting me an apologetic look, jumped up and hurried after her as well.
“Much as I hate to say it, Director Chen is right,” Annia remarked, concern in her dark eyes as she leaned forward and patted my shin from her place near the end of the bed. “The fact that you’re still lying in bed instead of going after her tells me you’ve got a bit of resting up to do.”
“Fuck that.” But she was right, I admitted silently to myself as I struggled up into a sitting position. I was as weak as a newborn cub. “I’ll be fine as soon as somebody can get some food into me. And when I am, I’m going after Iannis.”
“Why?” Noria demanded. “He’s a powerful mage and can take care of himself. You don’t need to risk your life for him, Naya.”
I lifted my chin to pin her with a glare. “He’s also my teacher, and I owe my life to him. I can’t leave him out there in danger without at least trying to help. Just because he’s the Chief Mage doesn’t mean he’s invulnerable.”
“Yes, and you aren’t invulnerable either, as you’ve just proven once again.” Noria stood, tossing her mane of fiery curls. “I think I’ll go get that food for you. Maybe once your belly is full, you’ll be able to think more clearly.” Shoving her hands into the top pockets of her multi-pocketed jeans, she spun around and left the room.
“Noria!” Annia called sharply after her younger sister, twisting around in her chair to get up, but Comenius placed a hand on her shoulder.
“There’s no point in talking to her about it right now,” he said. “You know how she feels about mages in general. She’ll just dig her heels in.”
“Com’s right.” I sighed, dragging a hand through my mass of curly black hair. Despite the fact that she had a mage boyfriend, Noria was passionately anti-mage. She hated the unequal balance of power even more than I did, and was a huge fan of the Resistance, the freedom-fighter organization that wanted to overthrow the mages and level the playing field for shifters and humans. “Maybe when she comes back, she’ll have cooled off a little.”
“I’m sorry about her.” Annia turned back, an apologetic look on her beautiful face. She was a more elegant version of Noria, her skin smoother, her hair straighter and darker, her curves more refined. “I thought that after this whole fiasco with the kidnapped shifters, she’d open her eyes to the fact that mages aren’t the only ones capable of evil. But she’s not ready to see that yet.”
“She has true conviction,” Elania, Comenius’s lover and a talented witch, said in her throaty, accented voice. She’d been sitting silently next to Comenius the whole time, her hand on his thigh in a show of support. “Conviction can be a blessing because it gives us focus, but it can also blind us to certain truths.”
“Conviction or not, I have to say I agree with Noria a little, and definitely with Director Chen,” Lakin admitted. “Wouldn’t it be better to wait until you’re more healed before rushing out into who knows where to go after the Chief Mage?”
“I can’t wait that long.” I let out a shaky breath, my hands fisting in the shredded covers to keep them from trembling. “I’ve already lost Roanas. I’m not going to sit back and let the Resistance take Iannis too.”
“Neither of those things were your fault,” Comenius said, giving my shoulder a comforting squeeze. Roanas had been my mentor – he’d taken me in off the streets after my aunt Mafiela had kicked me out of the jaguar clan and raised me as his own, teaching me how to fight as well as fend for myself. I’d loved him as I would have loved my father, had he stepped up to take care of me instead of disappearing without a trace. When I’d found Roanas in his living room two months ago, dying of silver poisoning, the loss had been nearly unbearable. My anger and bitterness against the Mages Guild coupled with my thirst for revenge were the only two things that kept me from descending into grief, and the wound was still fresh enough that I dared not give myself too much downtime to think about it. As my master, Iannis helped fill the hole in my life that Roanas had left behind, but my feelings for him ran along a different path.