Stark and Warden Crata watched the photos being uploaded from Shuri’s camera flash across a widescreen 50” television in 5”x5” cubes. Over the course of several evenings, the duo identified and isolated a few hundred out of the thousands with useful information.
A heavy fall rainstorm lays a deluge all through the forest roadway leading to Four Hearts Academy. The campus likely covered in the rain also.
“The kid’s got one lucky obsession with photography. We’ll be able to render a holographic 3-D model of that entire block and school with all this,” the warden stated.
“The headmaster says he really misses his camera, so soon as the model’s complete, I’ll be taking it back to him,” Stark said.
Stark has the jeep’s windshield wipers on high power but her gaze constantly shifts between the side and rearview mirrors even though she’s alone on the road.
They returned to the warden’s office while his tech officers gathered the photos they flagged through a facial recognition program isolating all red-headed women and tall men with long brown hair and scarred faces.
“The last of my contacts are doing their best to keep out investigation quiet, and Sheriff Will’s cooperation with that is helping, but if we find the woman we’re looking for and identify her as an associate of The Pure…or worse, Underworld, this will–”
“Yes, I’m aware of what it’ll mean.”
“I can try and–”
“You will do nothing, sir. You’ve already done enough on my behalf. I’ll take the consequences as they come. Only me. This time…only me.”
However, that isn’t all she’s ignoring.
“–and on top of everything, I’m just glad you’re back from that investigation. It’s not easy matching the way you run things.”
Stark ignores the voice coming from her phone, her eyes stuck on the drops of rain that splatter against the windshield.
Stark stepped around his desk and lifted the image of him and her and the child on his shoulders. The smiles of the warden and the young girl on his shoulders are very similar, full of teeth and joy.
“When’s the last time you talked with her mother?” Stark asked.
“When’s the last time you visited your father’s grave? Your childhood home?” Warden Crata asked back.
“The next time I do the former is when I have something new to say. The next time I do the latter is when I intend to let it become the home of another family.”
“Sir, are you there?” the voice asks sternly. “Stark!”
She finally hears the voice on the phone calling her name and snaps back to reality. She comes to a screeching halt, sliding through the muddy road for a few feet. Her breathing is fast and shallow, her brow covered in sweat. She puts the jeep in park and leans back, calming herself quickly.
“I’m sorry, Officer Roark,” Stark says. “I was distracted. Please, repeat yourself.”
“How far back, sir?” Roark asks.
“The last five minutes.”
“So, the whole–”
“The whole call, yes.”
“Yes, sir,” Roark says, and Stark hears no judgment in his tone. “If you’ll allow a summation, I basically said I’m glad you’re returning to campus full time. After running things exactly as you detailed, I’ve come to appreciate you much more now. I barely got four full hours of sleep these past few weeks. No clue how you handle it and stay so…put together.”
The warden rose, his right shoulder brushing against Stark’s right, and he straightened his suit jacket. “The time for the former is coming if what you said is true…” he turns and peers at the side of her face, seeing the haunted expression he expected, “and Liamria’s back.”
“I’ll just have to stop her this time,” Stark said, her confident voice doing little to change her haunted countenance.
“Nobody says it has to be you.”
“It can be nobody but me,” Stark declared fiercely.
“I have my lapses, Roark,” Stark admits. “You just saw one. So, you’ve earned a day off. I’m a few minutes from campus, but have a couple stops to make before I come to the office. Once I step inside, you’ll officially be relieved of duty. You could go to the Freshman Derby as a fan and not as security.”
Roark laughs heartily from his belly. “With all due respect, sir, that’s not possible. Being in the presence of these kids will always have me in security mode.”
“Yes, but even if very brief, we should take the time to be outside more,” Stark says solemnly.
“Sounds like advice for the both of us. Maybe I’ll see you at the Freshman Derby.”
Stark terminates the call swiftly. She wants to go and cheer on Nuria and the other nominees, but she has so many things to keep tabs on. Her going to the Freshman Derby would be selfish, and she can’t risk missing anything critical today.
The Freshman Derby has to go off without a hitch.
Nuria bounces from foot to foot, excited to finally have her very own lime green jersey with the stencil paw print on the front. On the back are slits for her wings to peak through, the number 813 nestled between them. She breathes easy as the fabric is easy to move around in and she tests it with backflips, somersaults, and jumping jacks. Her classmates give applause as she performs a handstand, though Syl quickly covers his eyes when her jersey falls down over her face.
“Maybe tuck that in next time,” Carnya teases. “And put on a bra,” she adds, making Syl’s cheeks flare up.
“Oh, leave Syl be,” Nuria says as she stands upright and fixes her outfit. “Plus, he and I have been there and done that.”
“What?!” Carnya and Tyra ask, the former feeling giddy while the latter is appalled.
“It’s not what you think. I accidentally changed in front of him.”
“Can I open my eyes now?” Syl asks.
“Not unless you wanna see Nuria naked,” Carnya teases once more.
“Carnya, stop,” Nuria says after giggling. “Syl, I am presentable.”
“More like presenting, am I right?”
“I’m just leaving. I’ll see you at the arena.” Syl keeps his eyes closed tight as he wanders around looking for the door. He gets close when it swings open and smacks him in the head. The girls all do varying jobs of containing their laughter with Carnya busting a gut, Nuria letting out little squeaks, and Tyra vibrating while keeping her lips sucked inward. Syl races around their joint professors and hides beyond the doorway.
Professor Zathony disregards their laughing and says, “Carnya and Tyra, please follow Professor Marmagar to the Star Derby arena. Nuria and I will join you shortly.”
“Yes, sir,” Tyra says, dragging a still giggling Carnya along behind her.
Zathony steps into the room once the young ladies and Syl are gone, following after the mute professor.
“Not too shabby,” Zathony says, commenting on Nuria’s jersey. “Are you ready for today?”
“You bet! I’m bringing the trophy home for sure!”
“Good to hear. What number did you choose?”
“Is this another passing curiosity?”
The professor shows Nuria a genuine full smile. “And now it’s passed.”
“Well, I’m still curious,” Stark says, announcing her arrival as she pops into the room with them. She locks eyes with Nuria after sizing her up in her jersey and gives her an approving look and nod. Nuria inhales, feeling good to see Stark’s confidence in her.
“Feast your eyes.” Nuria whirls around for them.
“Typically, jersey numbers cap at two digits,” Zathony comments.
“Why 813 specifically?” Stark asks.
Nuria punches and kicks the air twice with both arms and legs before hopping up- her wings sprout- and performs a dropkick. She lands gracefully and looks up at the two of them with brazen confidence. “I don’t want to be typical. I want to be remembered!”
The headmaster surveys the stands around the Star Derby arena, proud to see it packed as tight as can be. Still, he frowns at the fact that a third of the seats are empty. The more recent years of his tenure have seen a steady decline in student applications, and not even all accepted to the academy show up; the current freshman class is no exception.
Neth wants desperately to turn things around, like he did when he was first hired. In fact, it was the reason he was offered the job to begin with. My lineage is why they sought me out and I’ve been too obsessed with Shuri’s life that I’ve dropped the ball too many times. Rectifying my errors must start now.
Headmaster Neth rises and lifts his mic, gesturing for the broadcast team in the booth to turn it on. They give him the green light just a few moments later.
“Good afternoon, everyone,” Neth says warmly, though he feels his predecessors could do better, imagining the rain pelting the glass dome roof of the arena to be their tears at the state of their beloved academy.
“Thank you all for coming out in support of the Freshman Derby, as well as the brave and talented representatives chosen to perform their very best for you.” He gazes on those in the crowd dressed in their SD uniforms, those sporting team pennants, and even those with personalized signs of encouragement for the participants.
“And since I’m sure you don’t want me speaking forever, let’s bring out the contestants now!” Neth cheers, followed by the entire stadium’s audience.
A pair of double doors across from the headmaster opens up with an automatic hiss. In alphabetical order, the FD representatives march onto the court with their professors by their sides. Shuri and Tameri march out at the front of the pack, and those in support of Shuri rise and holler, dressed in the same burgundy jersey as him.
When Neth meets his grandson’s gaze briefly, he sees nothing but a challenge and wrath in his eyes.
The next two to the court are a young woman with ruby hair and a young man with olive hair, joined by Professors Cwen and Lynald respectively. The spectators in the baby blue jerseys root for the young lady, but those in orange jerseys are tamer when they see the olive-haired gentleman dressed in a white buttoned-down shirt and tan slacks.
At least he’s wearing sneakers, Neth thinks, as confused as the other Sulublei students. His stupor is blasted to smithereens by uproarious shouts of support and praise.
He lifts his head as so many in the stadium, and not just the Vanusi students, cheer for Nuria as she’s escorted onto the court by both Zathony and Marmagar. She soaks up the praise, performing a few tricks during her entrance, ending with her wings unfurled while crouched, smiling without a shred of doubt holding her back. Her stunt only encourages even wilder cheers.
Even from Shuri.
Neth marvels at how genuine his grandson seems, even towards a competitor that could block him from what he wants.
Once Nuria and her professors complete the horizontal lineup on the court and face the headmaster, he clears his mind and says, “And with each class’s representative present, the Freshman Derby can now officially…”
Stark leans back against her office desk, viewing the surveillance feed of the Star Derby arena from the perspective of a camera above the door Nuria and the others entered from. She claps alongside the applause from the crowd as Nuria performs for them, lowering a tablet to the desk. She leans back forward when the headmaster resumes speaking, using the tablet to zoom the camera in on his person.
“And with each class’s representative present, the Freshman Derby can now officially…begin!”
Good luck, Nuria.