Images of the FHA campus, specifically of the broken glass ceiling in the Star Derby arena, the cracked and burned gym floor, and dented benches in the stands, are all shown in one continuous loop as a fair-skinned news anchor raises sympathy for the students’ well-being. The laptop is on mute, but Stark watches without blinking, reading the subtitles for the details of his report, even when it morphs into a diatribe targeting the officer herself, the campus images replaced by a side-by-side image of herself and her mother. In the corner of the broadcast is a transparent image of a satellite dish with an eyeball at the peak of the antenna.
Stark narrows her eyes, then sighs and lowers her head. “This has been going on for the past 48 hours, correct?”
“Pretty much. Eyeline TV has been tireless in its broadcast of this story since the last court session ended. Of course, other news outlets have been running it, also. I’m sure there isn’t a soul in the entire nation that doesn’t know your name by now,” Syerus explains. “I haven’t seen any, but I hear that there will be protesters outside the courthouse calling for your immediate incarceration.”
“We’ll probably be able to hear them from the courtroom if they brought speakers with them.” Stark tries to sit up, but when the cuffs sink into her wrists, she resigns to her slouched posture.
“You know you don’t have to suffer in silence, Stark. I can get them to uncuff you.”
“You’ve already stuck out your neck enough for me. Any further, and I’m afraid you’ll have your career executed as mine will be,” Stark comments.
“Not if Nuria comes through today,” Syerus counters.
“You’re not calling her to the stands,” Stark says sharply, eyeing him with the intention to tackle him into submission, cuffs or no cuffs. “That’s nonnegotiable.”
“She’ll force her way to the stands, Stark. The girl is determined to defend you. She even–” Syerus shuts his mouth immediately.
Stark’s lethal gaze turns curious and she leans forward. “She even what, Syerus?”
“Uh…well, she might have…flown herself out here the other day.”
“She what?” Stark tries to stand out of the shock, but is yanked back down harshly. She looks down at her bleeding wrists. “Damn it!”
“That’s it.” Syerus stands and calls in the officers to undo her restraints. They take their sweet time, even aware of the cuts into her skin, before departing the room. “Stark, you need to learn to accept help. You’re always going to lose to your mother until you do. And without you, who loses to her next. If Nuria did as much damage to her as she claimed, then she’s the next target. Do you really think she’ll be fine for long without you watching her back?”
Stark stares at him silently for a long while, pondering his words in addition to something Warden Crata said before. Give her an authority figure to count on. A person in power she can see has her back. I did that, and now she wants to have mine. But can I really let her put herself in jeopardy for just my sake?…
“What did Nuria tell you?” Stark says after a moment.
“Does this mean you’ll let her testify?” Syerus asks hopefully.
“It means I’m going crazy for even considering it. But I need to know what she’s told you, first. I’ll make my decision after.”
“She only mentioned that she was able to burn your mother during the attack, and that she can prove how it was her that defeated the “bat lady” as she put it. She came barging into the courthouse the day before yesterday looking for me, and the kid has got some balls. She ran up and down these halls going into every courtroom she could find. I ran into her on her way out. She was going to the 9th precinct next to find Warden Crata if I hadn’t shown up when I did.”
“And she flew here?” Stark asks incredulously.
“Said she owed you even more now since you made her flight training at FHA possible. I’m telling you, Stark. The kid’s not even gonna listen to you. She’s made up her mind to be here. I’m guessing something went down back at the school and she’s reneging.”
That means that Headmaster Neth is cutting me loose. This case is going to pit the two of them against each other…and that cannot happen. I can’t let Nuria throw away the best and safest education she can receive about her phoenix powers and risk her free future for myself.
“Syerus, I need you to stop her. Lie to her. Tell her the court date has changed. Tell her we have other evidence to use. Just make sure she feels confident in our ability to win so that she leaves. I can deal with losing this case, going to prison, even losing my law enforcement career, but I will not have her ruin her future for me. Nor you. Please, just stop fighting. I’m done.”
“I have to ask, Stark. Would she really be forced into this life you think is so bad?”
“What do you know about officers who are allowed to have powers?” Stark asks back.
“That special permissions have to be granted, but I’ve never looked into what those permissions are, or why they’re granted.”
Stark takes a deep breath as she massages the cuts on her wrists, her fingers coming away smeared with blood. “My mother was my special permission. I was only allowed to be an officer because she was a known member of The Pure, and part of my job was to be ready to tackle cases involving The Pure whenever necessary. I did that as well as I could for five years, hunting down lowlifes and racists and delinquents with a tireless commitment, becoming the warden’s number two in record time. But then Warden Crata had a different job for me. I was against it at first. I was all too happy to have actual power, the power to get back at the kinds of people that effectively ruined both our lives. He’d trained me for that purpose, but then all of sudden I was to put all that away to guard school children. I’m not saying I ever thought that was a waste of time, but I was on the greatest high of my life. He stole it away from me. I was no longer hunting. I was protecting. I was…sobering up. I hadn’t visited my father’s grave since I joined the school because I was worried I’d fall back into that high. To want that power all over again. I had to stay away to keep up the feeling I’d learned to love. It felt good to be doing something that had a more wholesome purpose. To protect a newer generation. To make sure they never went through the same things I did. No child should ever have to witness the things I had when I was their age.
“If I let Nuria testify, I’m afraid that’s all she’ll see.”
The pair of bailiffs enter the room and unchain Stark’s ankles. “The court is soon to begin, so we’re to escort you out there now. Stand and present your recistene patch.”
Stark unbuttons her dark blouse just enough to reveal the blue badge sewn into her flesh, then she and Syerus follow after the bailiffs to the courtroom in silence. Stark notices the defeat on her lawyer’s face and knows that he’ll abide by her wishes. She smiles inwardly, finally having won some control over the situation.
I’m sorry, Crata, Nuria. I have to lose this. No consequences will befall the two of you for my sake. My inaction has landed me here, and mine alone. Please, if you can forgive me, I hope you do. Carry no grudges for today’s decision, bear no ill will against those against me. Live the lives you should…without me.
Stark takes her seat beside Syerus, showing the vultures behind her nothing to twist but a straight face. However, she notices the courtroom is more packed now than before. There are rows of officers present, most she recognizes from the 9th precinct, the other officers in the crowd commit to rage, each of them directing it all toward her. It’s faint, but she does indeed hear calls of fury from outside.
Eyeline TV has done its job. The nation has unified against me. Nothing could change my fate. Not even Nuria. Hell, not even proof.
“Don’t worry,” Stark hears whispered against her ear. The soft but orotund voice fades as swiftly as it came, leaving Stark looking at a sea of angry and supportive faces, at a loss of where it came from.
As she turns back around, ready to fume she gave the vultures a look of unguarded shock to capture on tape, she notices Nuria step inside between flashes, side-by-side with Warden Crata, and the two appear to be chatting warmly. Both their good moods and Stark’s are erased when Professors Tameri and Zathony race into the aisle and drag Nuria into the aisle with them, reprimanding her without hesitation. Stark can’t help but narrow her eyes.
How could they let her fly here on her own? Don’t they know they can’t- No! It’s not my job anymore. They can watch after her now.
Stark turns forward and resolves to watch the trial commence once the judge arrives. Syerus follows her orders and asks a minimal amount, and ultimately fruitless questions such as “Why did you not defend your colleague?” and “Do you not regret the decisions that you and your protégé has made as of late regarding the investigation into Liamria?”
He doesn’t impede on Tameri’s response once she gets worked up into a rant, but Zathony answers swiftly and succinctly. “I have no love for someone who’s put our students in danger. Her associations are not conducive to a safe learning environment. Her mother said before us all that she wanted her daughter back, and I have no reason to believe that she won’t keep coming back until that goal is achieved. I’d rather have her elsewhere than working under the same roof as me or my other colleagues.”
Warden Crata answers the latter question by saying, “Neither I nor Officer Stark have made any mistakes in our investigations.”
“You claim that to be the case, but evidence has gone absent under the watch of you both, and vanished in your precinct. Surely, you can understand how perhaps it wasn’t Stark who orchestrated that theft, but quite possibly–”
Stark clears her throat loudly several times, stopping only when Syerus begrudgingly turns around and faces her. She shakes her head minutely, but her look cows the young man in his tracks.
“No further questions, your honor,” Syerus says, deflated.
“Very well, but you stated during the last session that you’d received a new witness confirmation. Is this person present right now, or do you wish to forego more questioning?”
“They are present, your honor, but upon–”
“If they are present, then call them to the stands. I want all facts laid out clearly for the jury to go over them to their satisfaction.”
Stark nods her approval to Syerus. This isn’t going how it should. Why would the judge practically force him to call a witness? Especially if the jury delivers their verdict today. Then there’s the voice that came…out of…nowhere. Stark lowers her head but scans the purlieu of the courtroom with a penetrating gaze, focusing on the spaces between people. That culprit from the evidence lab is here. I need to get word to Warden Crata somehow. But first…
Nuria slides past the professors, and the stink eyes they exchange gives Stark confirmation of the fact that Neth did not want her to testify today. The young phoenix follows Syerus to the stand where the bailiff gives her a hand into it, after making her take an oath to tell her honest truth.
“Can you state your name for the record, please, dear?” Syerus asks.
“My name is Nuria. N-u-r-i-a.”
Nuria seethes as her professors again fail to come to Stark’s defense, but this time she directs some of that anger toward the lawyer representing her. Why isn’t he acting the same as before? He was more forceful last time. She manages to edge closer to the aisle when Zathony leaves, but Tameri keeps her trapped inside the row. She’s ready to be called to the stands once the warden, who gave her a couch to sleep on in his precinct, is called down. Her leg taps wildly until the judge reminds the lawyer that she still exists.
Finally, it’s my turn!
Nuria rises and slides past her babysitters, not even trying to hide her displeasure with the both of them. She ignores whatever warnings they whisper through clenched teeth. She knows what she came here for, and she intends to give it her best shot. She places a hand on the entrance to the court proper and feels a sudden pressure, followed by a piece of paper sinking inside her closed palm. Nuria takes a second to peak over her shoulder, only to find a slew of angry cops glaring daggers at Stark’s back.
Nuria crosses into the court and takes her oath to tell the truth. She climbs into the stand with the assistance of one of the bailiffs and once seated, she steals a quick glance at the paper in her palm. The very short message reads: “This isn’t necessary.” Nuria rolls her eyes and shuts her hand, burning the tiny paper without a trace, then dumps the ashes onto the floor.
“Can you state your name for the record, please, dear?” Syerus asks.
Nuria faces Syerus head-on. “Nuria. N-u-r-i-a.”
“Now, Nuria, do you understand what this case is about?”
“Yes, I do. People are trying to turn Stark into a villain when they should instead be out trying to stop her mom,” Nuria says intensely.
“What do you know about Stark and her mother?”
“About Stark, I know that she’s had my back since I came to Four Hearts Academy, more than anyone else has. My brother also survived under her watch. As did an entire class of his peers. And when Stark’s mother attacked, she came and defended not just me, but all the other Freshman Derby participants and coaches. She was the first to do so, even though she wasn’t present when the attack began.”
“You say that as if others here were present during that time?”
“That’s correct. Three of us, in fact. Myself, and the two professors testifying against her. Neither of them were able to act with anything close to her reaction speed, and they were already in the arena with all of us.”
Syerus smiles and so does Nuria, seeing some of that fight returning to his expression. “I see. That’s really interesting. So, Stark was able to round up her officers and launch a successful evacuation and counterattack all before even one of the professors took action. Is that correct?”
“It is. I had a chance to talk with Warden Crata this morning before court and gave him that same eye-opening detail that was left out by the professors and headmaster of Four Hearts Academy. Seems like quite the oversight to me. Stark may have a mother that’s a member of The Pure, but that doesn’t and shouldn’t reflect on her own character.”
“And what do you know about The Pure, Nuria?”
Nuria considers lying for a moment, but then she remembers what the bat lady said and smirks. “I only thought them some weird criminal group with a weird name. But there was a woman who attacked me and a friend of mine earlier in the school year, and she said something to me I couldn’t make sense of until Stark told me what it meant, and given how much everyone in the courthouse seems so agitated by this particular group, my guess is they target Ibri individuals specifically. The word I believe they use is Bigene. Do I have that right?”
“Yes, Nuria. That’s the word. And one of the perpetrators under Liamria’s employ used that word to describe you?”
“Yeah, but she ended up regretting it. Just like Liamria did.”
“You mean that Stark was responsible for putting an end to both threats?”
“No,” Nuria says while feeling the weight of her next words leave her shoulders. “While Stark was very swift in reaching the arena, she was not present the night I was first attacked with my friend until after the situation had resolved itself. And as far as her mother, she was not instrumental in ending that skirmish either.”
“Then how is it that you survived both incidents despite being at the center of them both?”
“Because Stark and my friend made sure that I was taken care of, I reciprocated. I was the one who put an end to both the bat lady, er, Kari, I think her name is, and to Liamria as well,” Nuria states boldly for the record. “I saw both of them in danger, and I was not going to stand idly by and do nothing. It’s why I had to…kill that Kari woman and chase off Liamria. And it’s why I’m testifying right now. Stark can have whoever wants to stand against her, but I will always be next to her. I promised her that, and I do not intend to break that because her mother’s an asshole.”
Nuria turns when a few select members of the jury laugh, but she hears one more voice than those covering their laughter with their hands. She shakes her head and turns back to Syerus, and he’s also tickled.
“I see,” he says once he quells his funny bone. “Now, Nuria, how old are you?”
“I’m fourteen,” she says bitterly, fearful her age is going to ruin the validity of her testimony.
“You’ll have to forgive my reticence, but how am I supposed to believe that a fourteen-year-old girl was able to kill a known assassin, and scare off the hardened criminal who employed her in the first place? That’s quite an inconceivable story.”
“I’m an inconceivable kid.” Nuria’s irked when the jury laughs at her again. “What I mean is that I’m not just some ordinary child. I…I have a pretty rare power inside of me.”
“Nuria,” Stark says disparagingly as she stands.
“Counselor, your client will stay seated and silent during the testimony,” the judge warns.
“Sorry, your honor.” Syerus turns to Stark and lowers his hands gently. He mouths, “I’m sorry.” He whirls back to Nuria, and a drop of sweat slides down his forehead. “And what is this power that you claim makes a schoolgirl a threat to dangerous assassins?”
Nuria turns to the judge. “I may have to leave the stand to show this properly. May I?” Nuria climbs down from the stands and takes center stage in the court. “To get here, I had to leave the school campus without permission. I was going to be barred from testifying on Stark’s behalf because everyone always warned me that outing myself was dangerous.”
Nuria takes off her brown blazer and reveals a lavender shirt with her avian dimension slits over her shoulder blades. “I flew here using my wings, a skill I gained only because Stark saw to it that I could receive flight training. The wings I’m about to show you are ph–”
The doors to the courtroom are kicked open so suddenly and forcefully that the slams echo throughout the room. The entirety of the court’s occupants turn and watch another young woman, this one closer to eighteen years of age, stride through the middle aisle. She’s dressed in a dark military uniform with a couple of decorated badges over her left breast. A wide ring sword in the shape of a snowflake seems to be suspended in the air behind her back, resting there perfectly without any harness or wires.
“I hope you have a good reason for interrupting my court, Miss…?”
“Miss Venesi, your honor.” Venesi approaches the judge’s podium and first holds up her ID badge, it showcases her face, dark hair, and blue eyes and ring sword, but in the bottom left-hand corner is a stamp of three violet swords orbiting the moon. “And I’m here to deliver a missive signed and approved of by both the Silent Slayers and Three Holy Vanusi.” She reaches into her uniform jacket and extends the missive to the judge. “Please read it aloud, your honor.”
Nuria flinches when the young woman suddenly faces her. She minutely nods back toward the door as the judge begins to read the letter.
“From this moment forward, this case is dismissed. The rushed manner in which it was handled, as well as the mishandling of information and evidence, are all suspect to be reviewed and then and only then will a determination of this case be made when and if it’s discovered that the defendant was indeed in collusion with The Pure and/or Underworld. So, all broadcasts regarding the case are to cease. News CEOs and online distributors of news are receiving similar letters and emails as you read this. No legal action is to be made against the defendant, Stark. She is to be released immediately. And lastly, the transcript for the case and all relevant court files are to be boxed and mailed to the address detailed below. This is where you may stop reading the missive aloud. Thank you for your cooperation, your honor.”
Nuria turns toward the door and sees Tyra standing across the hall outside and away from the view of the vultures, dressed in a suit she’s never seen her wear. She smiles when she sees her friend, aware this is somehow her doing. She balls her fist and extends it through the air, extending the reach with her feelings of gratitude and relief.
Tyra follows after Venesi down the bright corridor, the tall walls making her feel very small. She feels the trapped air in the back of her throat as they march forward. She was ecstatic when Aranda was able to assist her without getting her mother involved, but if she lets even one camera catch her, even if just her shoulder in the background, she knows her mother will be all over her and force her to return home immediately.
I know once I go back, she’ll put the clues together, but I can at least finish one year. I was hoping for a normal experience, but since I’ve never been away from home, who’s to say this isn’t normal. I should ask Nuria, if she even still wants to talk to me after our last conversation went the way it did. But that’s assuming we’re on time. If Nuria spoke too quickly, then she might have already exposed herself…and then she’ll end up like Venesi here…trained for battle and only battle.
Tyra crashes into Venesi’s back, too engrossed in her thoughts to have noticed she stopped.
“I think you should take a few steps back,” Venesi says matter of factly.
Tyra backs up slowly, flinching when Venesi kicks the courtroom doors open. She watches from a safe distance as camera flashes shine just mere feet from her, no doubt capturing Venesi’s walk to the judge. Tyra keeps an eye on her position in relation to the door and finds a nice spot where she can peer inside without being seen by any photographers. She sees Nuria standing in the middle of the court, watching her watch Venesi intently. The young angel opens her senses up and targets her peer directly. She buckles when she feels nothing but anger and fear and insecurity.
She’s terrified. She doesn’t know if she can save Stark and it has her rattled to her core. Yet, she came here to give it her best shot. And here I am, still cowering out of sight.
Tyra lowers her head, senses still open, and just when she starts to pity herself, she feels a wave of extremely potent gratitude slam into her. She peers up sharply, stung by the sudden showering of warm emotions. She finds Nuria staring directly at her, the only one in the room aware of her presence. Nuria extends a closed fist her way with a wide grin.
Tyra thinks about the moment for all of one second before extending her own fist. She knows Nuria lacks her gifts, but hopes that her mutual feelings reach her friend. For this one person only would she defy her mother, even go around behind her back. She feels a comradery with Nuria she’s never had, and she knows now that if push comes to shove, she’ll try her damnedest to return to Four Hearts Academy next year.
Tyra lowers her arm when Nuria does. She nods to her friend before again disappearing away from the sight of any cameras, but she sees Nuria race to Stark and hug her when the judge announces victory for them. She continues down the hall, her job taken care of, and intends to leave ahead of Nuria and the others. Her pocket buzzes. Thinking it’s a message from Aranda, she pulls it out to respond right away. She reads the message and her voice cracks when air catches in the back of her throat again. Her hand shivers so much she nearly drops her phone.
There’s no way. How…how could she know? I didn’t even tell Aranda that Nuria was a phoenix. I barely used her name.
The message reads:
“Keep Nuria from making so much noise, dear. Makes it hard to keep interested parties deaf to her.”