Nuria lay tucked under a thin bed sheet. She breathes slow and constant. An entire week passes with a variety of faces dropping by to check on her. Her most frequent visitors are Rum and Tyra. They often stay the longest but never do they visit at the same time. One of them sits to speak with her now.
“I wish you’d wake up already,” Rum says. “I don’t know how long I can keep mom in the dark before she comes here herself. But of course, you’d leave me to deal with her on my own again.”
He briskly massages his neck when a weak chuckle tickles his ears. He turns sharply to Nuria to see her peering at him through narrowly opened eyes.
“If you ever stop worrying me,” he replies. “What in the hell happened to you? They only told me about the fire and that you were found collapsed.”
Though her vision is shot, she can hear the unmistakable tone of dread in his voice. “Sorry. It was…my…fault.” She coughs. “Been a rough…couple of…days.”
“I think you should fill me in this time, sis. If you don’t, I will tell mom to come up here.”
Nuria laughs with a bit more energy. “You would…do that…wouldn’t you. Fine.”
Rum leans forward and rests his head on his hands.
“Not sure on all…the details, but I know there was…a woman. She was dangerous. Last thing I…remember is Tyra…finding me. After that…well, this.” She minutely gestures at her situation with a flick of her wrists.
“Come on. What’s the whole story?”
“It’s…a lot,” she says after a long pause.
“I’ve got nowhere to go, and I won’t until you spill the beans.”
Nuria sees no more reason to hide it. He gave her time, so she can give him the results she reached within that same span. She informs him of her newly discovered Vanusi state- omitting any wrongdoing their mother may have committed- and of her swift journey to learn to channel that side of her, including the conversations she had with Neth, Tyra, and Carnya on the subject. She tries to conceal the meat of her story, but he pressures her to keep going. She relents and speaks of the experimental logs written by Halko.
“And that’s everything,” she says. She sits up and pulls the covers around her snugly. “It’s been a wild ride.”
“And you really accused the professor of that?”
“I’ll apologize later,” she states. “I just…I didn’t know what to think. The earlier passages in the first volume made him appear saintly. Would you trust a world where your kind was targeted for extinction?”
At that moment, the most disconcerting words of her almost murderer flood her mind. “Do you know what Bigene means?”
“It was the word that woman used to describe me. ‘Bigene scum’ were her exact words.”
“Must be some kind of slang for Ibri,” Rum says. “At the train station, there was a terminal map tagged with the letter “B” over the Ibri section.”
“Okay, well, get some rest. I’ll go grab us some dinner and come back.”
“I can come with you. I’m not that tired.”
“You just got out of a week-long coma, sis. Sit tight and I’ll be back in a flash.”
I was out for a week? Nuria bounces that single thought around inside her head the entire time Rum is gone. When he steps back into view, she voices the question out loud.
“Given the amount of energy you expended that night, I’m surprised it wasn’t two,” Tyra says, following behind Rum with her own tray.
Nuria watches the two of them sit side by side next to her bed and smiles. “So, you two met, huh?”
“We happened across each other while you were comatose. Our class schedules are pretty different, so we agreed to stay next to you when the other was busy.”
“It took some time to convince him of that, too,” Tyra explains.
“What finally did it?”
“I promised not to tell his other classmates about his accident on the train.”
“Accident?” Nuria turns a sour look on her brother. “What aren’t you telling me?”
“The train took off faster than expected, and when I crashed into the door connecting the cars, I, umm…” He trails off as his embarrassment inflames his cheeks.
“You need to get a handle on that. Wait, what do you mean by other classmates?”
“There’s a girl with a bow that was in the car with him when it happened.”
“Really?” Nuria teases. “What’s her name?”
“None of your business.”
“Is she cute?”
“Hey, you bullied my stuff out of me.”
“There’s nothing critical about me thinking a girl is cute.”
“So, she is cute. Good to know.” Nuria grabs the tray he thrusts toward her, an attempt to quiet her on the subject while she eats.
“How are you feeling?” Tyra presses softly.
“Oddly, a little refreshed. I mean, I still don’t feel the best about what went down, but I think I’m safe here. I think I’d have been fine if I didn’t flee campus. Not my best decision ever.”
“Do you remember anything from that night?”
“Only that you arrived and saved me.”
“Pretty much. I mean, I felt really hot at the beginning of the dream I was having. The sun was right next to me, and I felt incredible. It went away and left me cold. I didn’t warm up again until I heard Rum’s voice earlier. Did something else happen?”
Tyra shakes her head instantly. “Don’t worry about it for now. I’m just glad you’re awake. I think the others will be, too.”
“Even after the fire?”
“Zathony told everyone it was caused by a boiler explosion. Nobody knows you were behind it. As for the dorm, well, it’s going to be coed for a while. I already moved your stuff to the other side.”
“Thanks. And now I owe Zathony a fourth one.”
“How’d you get to four?”
“Me accusing him of wanting to cage me, burning down the dorm, him excusing me from that, and then there’s this.” Nuria grabs a folded note on her nightstand. “He gave me an “A” for the Vanusi assignment. He looks forward to seeing me in action when I’m ready, and not to worry about any work I’ll miss in the meantime.”
“And before you ask, I told Neth to go ahead and use our, umm, contribution for the repairs necessary for the dormitory.”
Nuria nods. “Good thinking.”
“Oh, before I forget. Stark wants to see you when you’re ready. She has a few things to let you know about those books you read.”
“I’m not touching those again,” Nuria snaps. “If she tries to put them in my hand, I will burn them to cinders.”
Tyra eases out her next words. “I don’t think she’ll do that. She just said she wanted to inform you of their origins. She doesn’t seem the type to waste words on someone just to torment them.”
“Then I might as well get this over with. Where do I find her?”
When the door to her office opens, Stark turns and silently takes measure of Nuria’s condition. Her eyes appear sharp and focused, her legs firm, and no signs of fatigue in her breathing. “You’ve recovered nicely.”
“A week in bed will do that.”
“Before we start, I need to tell you that this conversation is between you and me only. Anyone else that needs to know already does.”
“Is Tyra one of those people? Is my brother?”
“Yes, and no. And the latter need only know what you’ve already told him. I assume he was with you today.”
Nuria sighs. She knows the mess she made, and if she needs to keep quiet as payment, she will. “Agreed. I will keep this between us.”
“Good. Now, I took a look at those books I found you reading. Those are one of a kind databooks. The only people who would have access to those are very rich or have the connections necessary to acquisition them temporarily.”
“So, that Halko guy really was celebrated for those experiments?” Nuria regrets the moment the question passes her lips.
“In his time, yes, but not in this current political climate. That’s why the books are very old. They were written over two hundred years ago. The only reason they’re preserved is because the information may be helpful in learning how to revive the species. Though it has yet to do so, they are kept on that minimal hope. I’ve made arrangements to have them discreetly returned to where they belong.”
“We should burn them. Better than anybody getting the wrong idea from Halko. Those books are the wrong way to learn of us.”
“Rest assured, I made manual edits to volume two. Nothing that can be used against you exists in the world now. In fact, if you’d like,” Stark removes a collection of dusty pages from a filing cabinet, “you can make certain they never do.”
“And how do I know you didn’t make copies?”
Stark turns away from Nuria and sends the pages down a powerful shredder. The grind of paper being minced sends cathartic music into Nuria’s soul. Stark dumps the shredded scraps into a metal trashcan, lights a match, then sets those shreds ablaze.
“Because I have no desire to torment you. Neither does Professor Zathony, nor anyone employed here. If Neth thought for a moment any of the faculty here were a liability, they would no longer be welcome at Four Hearts Academy. I can assure you of that.”
Nuria steps closer and watches the pages shrivel in the fire. When the last remnants are nothing but ashes, she releases a deep and satisfied breath.
Nuria cracks a smile. “I wish I’d taken you up on the offer to burn them myself.”
“I could give you the copies I made.” Nuria’s joy instantly morphs into a lethal gaze and Stark throws her hands up. “Just a joke. Sorry. Thought you were in the mood for one.”
Nuria sighs. “Too soon.”
“Noted. Now, the other thing I need to discuss is the woman who attacked you.”
“Yeah, I need details, too. What did Tyra do to scare her off? Or was it you? Did you arrest her?”
Tyra was right. She isn’t aware of what she did. What she can do.
“She’s been dealt with. However, she was a mercenary for hire. Did she say or do anything that might point to her employer?”
Nuria thinks back for a moment and the answer comes swiftly. “I think so. The first thing she said to me was ‘You’re the Bigene scum I’ve been tasked with eliminating.’ I don’t know what Bigene means, though. Rum told me it might be a slang term.”
Stark works as fast as she can to disguise the panic in her face. She breathes easy when she sees Nuria trying to work out the definition in her mind instead of watching her.
“Bigene is a derogatory term for Ibri individuals. It expresses disgust in regards to Avinians with mixed blood. Are you absolutely positive that’s what she said?”
“Without a doubt.”
“Nuria, I want you to listen to me carefully right now.” Stark pauses until Nuria locks gazes with her. “You were the victim of an unprecedented attack, and I cannot allow this to be entirely swept under the rug. I have already put in a court order for you to see a trauma counselor weekly, under my supervision. If you wish to keep your mother out of this, that is the compromise I offer. Should you say no, I will have to contact her immediately.”
Stark crosses her arms and waits, letting the question hang unsaid. Nuria tries to keep her gaze level, but tears start to pool. She blinks and looks down, hiding her fright from the officer. “It’s not that I want to keep this from my mother, it’s just… I know what it looked like that I ran before, but I’m not ready to give up on learning this phoenix thing.”
“I see. Thank you.” Stark turns and types in something on a monitor hidden from Nuria’s point of view. “That is all, Nuria. I’m glad you’re okay.”
“Thanks. I’ll try to keep it up.”
Stark looks up after Nuria closes the door behind her. She dials into her cellphone. “Sir, we have a bigger problem than expected.” She pauses to listen to the voice on the other end. After a lengthy rant, she replies, “Yes. It’s The Pure.”