Sorry, Nuria, but they would kill me if I told you where I was going, Reddic says to himself behind his jocund grin, aware of Nuria’s prying gaze on his face. Impressed as he is at how fast she’s learned to read him, he knows she’ll never decipher this secret.
“Do you really have to leave now?” Nuria asks, a crestfallen demeanor radiating from her. “My house arrest is still for a few days, and I’ll be all alone.” She lowers her head. “I thought you were gonna be my friend.”
Reddic takes a reluctant step forward after turning to leave, then smirks. The phoenix overplays her hand by swiftly looking back down, thinking he’d turn to leave. “Nice try, Nuria.”
She huffs, sitting up straight. “It was worth a shot. But seriously, what am I supposed to do while you’re gone?”
“Come now, I’m not going to leave you high and dry. Neth and I finally came to an agreement last night. The last nights of your house arrest will be observed outside these walls.”
The flash of joy on her face would be nice if she didn’t ask, “He’s rejoining our class with the S’nue class?”
“Unfortunately, no. I then made an argument for Sulublei,” Reddic says as he moves to answer a knock.
“What’d he say?”
“He said,” one of the guests says, “that it would be better to place her in an environment she’s more accustomed to.”
The other guest waves to her.
“Wait, what? No. No, that’s a bad idea,” Nuria protests.
“It’s all I could do, Nuria,” Reddic says. “I have informed them of your control problem, and they assure me they can handle it justly.”
“Save your protests, Nuria,” Professor Zathony says curtly. “There are no other options that either of us are left with.”
Professor Marmagar slaps his colleague’s arm, fiercely signing away.
“I concur,” Reddic states, pointing to the top of his head, followed by pointing two fingers to the mute professor.
“My lesson plans have to be halted once more due to her actions. Excuse me if I’m less than amused by that fact. Now, we have to launch into an unscheduled review period.”
Reddic banks his perturbation behind a wry smile. “It’s not entirely her actions at fault. I’m the one leaving her in your care. I also think–”
“I kept my promise!” Nuria blurts.
“I told you that I’d be better equipped for your lessons this year, and I worked hard all spring break to be sure of that. I may have some control issues, but I’m confident in my flight!” she boasts.
“Care to prove it?”
“Name the game, professor,” Nuria challenges with such fervor that Reddic wishes he could stay to watch.
“I’ll leave that business to you then, professors. If I’m any later, the headmaster may have my head. Nuria, behave while I’m away. Oh, and don’t forget to have fun, too!” He steps through the double doors when she calls to him. “Yes?”
“Um, are you…,” she wavers as she glances over her shoulder. “Are you taking your…lucky tooth with you?”
“Lucky to- Ah.”
“For this trip, yes. I’m afraid I’ll need all the luck I can muster. I’d leave it with you, but I have a better idea.” Reddic leans in close to Nuria and whispers. “Nine-two-nine-six-four-nine-six-two-one-nine.” He straightens and says at room volume. “Should you need advice, help, or just because, remember that sequence.”
“Okay,” the phoenix says with a nod.
“All right, then. Professors,” Reddic offers salutations with a curt wave.
The moment he’s sure Nuria is preoccupied with her former and now interim professors, he drops the warmth in his gaze. His march to the campus’ front gate is a miserable one. He goes over the details of his trip on his phone, pleased to learn the cost of his meeting request doesn’t thrill him as it once did. The message he directs his anger at says:
Find evidence of Exulsi copycats in Jupiter City ASAP. Use any force you deem necessary should you find them.
He drains his frustration by imagining all he’d do should he manage to apprehend the copycats, able to bank the leftovers behind more jubilance. He strides up to Neth’s right. Officer Roark stands bastion at the jeep parked across from them.
“This trip must not be as important as you claim if you’re already lagging behind,” the headmaster prods.
“Not as important as this job, no, I agree,” Reddic replies. “Nuria had some last-minute concerns, of which I was happy to put at rest.”
“And when will you treat me with that respect?”
“The moment you give me the same,” Reddic says plainly.
Playing coy won’t work, so I’ll speak in his manner.
“I’ve already taken a gamble just by allowing your class to be made.”
“A worthwhile concession in my eyes. And what’s this?” Reddic queries when handed a clipboard by the bald officer.
“Standard procedure for when one of our vehicles leaves campus. In case of damage or theft, it helps to resolve the situation with our insurance company,” Officer Roark explains. “All staff are required to fill these out prior to departure. If you flip to the rear sheets, you’ll find some completed by Professor Tameri.”
Reddic flips to the back and finds nearly a dozen forms signed by the Ohaida professor alone. What he finds most interesting is that most of them list Aurum in the “Students In Attendance” section, and only Aurum. The latest date is the second most interesting.
So, this is why he missed the party.
“Very well.” Reddic fills out the form promptly, and decides to extend more respect Neth’s way and answers each section honestly, from “Destination” to “Duration of Loan”. Although, he isn’t entirely confident on that last one.
“At least two weeks?” Neth reads aloud, incredulous.
“Could be more, could be less. It’s the price I paid to be able to teach here. My time is not one hundred percent under my control.”
“We’ll see,” Neth spits venomously. “Hand him the keys, Officer Roark.”
Reddic accepts them graciously. He puts the campus in the rearview mirror swiftly, traversing down the two-lane road leading to a long stretch of road going north and south. He turns north and parks parallel to a thick tree line. He steps out of the jeep and unlocks the trunk with the fob. He double-checks for incoming cars, then whistles softly, three short bursts. Fanger emerges from the brush and dashes across the street on camouflaged legs. The jeep sinks closer to the ground when he hops into the trunk.
“Remember, no claws out. No damage of any kind. If you need to use the outdoors, just yowl like you do when I put accidentally feed you salty fish,” Reddic orders playfully.
The leopard nods, curling into a ball to rest as the trunk closes. Reddic goes to retake his position in the driver’s seat when his phone buzzes. He groans, thinking it to be a revised order from his taskmasters. The message flashing on-screen reads:
Should you need the company of a soon-to-be full-fledged phoenix, remember this sequence. Seven-five-six-two-seven-five-eight-four-nine-six.
The sun makes his two irises nearly identical when he turns his head to the sky.
What I have to do now is nothing I can or will burden your young heart with, but rest assured I’m already awaiting our reunion more than you know.
“So, just a simple race straight back down here?” Nuria asks, performing vertical and horizontal toe touches, adding twists to the latter. She kicks her shoes off after.
“That’s all there is to it,” Zathony states.
“What happens if I win?”
“I’m faster than you think.”
“It may be a race, but flight requires more than just speed. If you practiced as hard as you claimed, then surely you learned that much at least.”
Nuria drops her childish arrogance on the spot. He’s right about that. Without my mezzo flames, I had too much trouble maneuvering at higher altitudes.
“Ah, seems you learned humility over the spring, as well.”
“We’ll talk more once I’ve won the race. You’ll see.”
Zathony scoffs jeeringly. “Marmagar.”
On the command, the larger professor drops his hammer to the sparring stage, and his brown plumage emerges from his back. The wings snap in the air as he silently expresses joy. He gestures from his wings to the sky, then sweeps his arms to his sides from in front of him.
“Exactly how long has it been?”
Marmagar holds up two fingers.
Marmagar sweeps his hands to his sides.
“Two weeks?” Nuria asks hopefully.
He sweeps his arms out even more.
“Two months?” she asks incredulously.
Nuria whistles slowly. She doesn’t have the chance to fly every day, but to not do so for two months straight would drive her crazy.
“What’s the highest altitude you’ve reached on your own?” Zathony queries.
“I don’t know,” she replies swiftly and honestly.
“Are you- no, never mind. You visit the flagpole routinely, yes?”
“Can you reach at least twice as high as that?”
“Three times as high,” she says calmly so that he’ll believe her.
“Marmagar, take her to a height of one thousand feet, please.”
“I can go higher than that!”
“I’m sure you can, but this is a race, not a marathon. We have class in ten minutes and I’d rather we not arrive late.”
Nuria flinches, having forgotten her Ibri schedule was different. Additionally, she hasn’t fully prepared to be in the same room as Tyra.
I guess I–
She shakes her head and looks to the herd of clouds separating her from the sun. The new trick she employs to summon her wings is to imagine her weight carried by the wind while humming the first verse of her song she’s finally resumed working on again. She mimics Marmagar’s silent joy when the new technique keeps up its one hundred percent success rate.
The two aviary individuals take flight, but only Marmagar’s wings beat hard enough on take off to kick up dust. Nuria inspects and compares his wing aspect ratio to her own. The length of their marginal coverts are similar, though his primary feathers extend out farther for a longer wingspan. Still, she determines that the ratios are close enough that she can learn from his flight pattern and employs some of the same tricks he uses until they reach their starting line, still far below the lowest clouds.
Marmagar counts to three with his fingers, then points to the ground.
“Mind if I do the honors?”
He lowers his head in an aerial bow.
“All right!” She gets ready to jet. “One, two, three! Go!”
This time around, Nuria relies on her own moves. She uses her mezzo flames for a swift lead, but cuts them off immediately after. A mere one thousand feet is too close to the ground to use them longer than that. Even as fast as she goes, she can’t help but take a second to revel in the feeling. The force of the wind caressing her feathers and whipping her braid all around isn’t for exercise or training this time; she simply finds bliss. When Marmagar passes her, she doesn’t try to bridge the gap, instead opting to maintain that feeling as long as possible, coming to a landing at a snail’s pace.
“Good race, sir,” Nuria says, offering a high-five that Marmagar accepts.
“Is that your way of mocking me? By going slow on purpose,” Zathony accuses.
“No, it’s just…maybe it’s been a long time since I flew, too,” she directs to Marmagar.
The hawk man points to them both, spreads his arms wide, then brings them together slowly.
“Oh, absolutely,” Nuria agrees.
“Just do so on your own time,” Zathony barks as he stalks off.
“You got it, boss,” Nuria says as she saunters up to his side. “But I can show you how gifted I am no matter the lesson.”
Zathony smirks. “You’ll find you aren’t as ahead of your peers as you believe.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“And ruin the surprise? I think not.”
“Disgraced Officer Acquitted Of All Charges”, “Pure Syndicate Member Liamria Still At Large”, and “Spring Break For This Officer” are just a couple of articles pinned to the corkboard in the living room where normally a coffee table would be. Stark stands as she scans the network of documents and photos connected via thumbtacks and yarn. All of the photos show Liamria from various and unclear angles.
Syerus’ contacts are not the most gifted photographers I’ve seen, but at least they manage to keep her on their radars.
She sees the gate to her fence swing open through her broken window. Syerus waves with a hand carrying a dossier. “Hey, Stark, I’m here.”
“Any updates you can give me now?” she asks after taking the proffered dossier, then commences reading into.
“She’s swiped another cell and credit card. This time belonging to a man named Jeremiah. So, she’s sticking with the pattern. Also, what happened to your window?”
“Angry neighbors threw bricks shortly after this came out.” She taps the spring break article at the top of the board. The headline image is a picture of Stark lounging by Jupiter Lake in an emerald sundress. “Warden Crata has advised me to work from home while he contends with the publisher.”
“Were you lounging? Doesn’t seem like you?”
“Yes, but the photo was cropped and altered to age me up. You’ll find the original on the mantle behind the couch.”
Syerus examines the photo in question and sees Stark lounging as advertised, though she’s a teenager enjoying a strawberry shortcake while flanked by her parents. Liamria lies on her back with a wry smile, but on Stark’s left, her father is pilfering one of the strawberries from the delicacy. Syerus sniggers when he realizes that Stark gets her freckles from him. A moment later, he flinches. “Wait, how’d they get access to this picture?”
“My mother sent them a copy. Crata hopes to track her through their communication. She’s been using all these stolen cell phones to contact their office, as well as two other numbers we can’t trace. Burners, most likely.” She snaps the dossier shut. “It’s a long shot, but we have to take it. We’ve hit too many dead ends and I know now that these little jabs are escalating. She’ll resurface soon.”
“What’ll you do then?” he asks, joining her on the couch.
“Hope I can catch her in the act. She won’t come for me directly again. She’ll try to put me off balance first.”
The targets best suited for that are Crata, Neth, and Nuria. I doubt she’ll target Nuria again, but I can’t rule anything out.
She accepts an incoming call so fast that she doesn’t bother checking the caller ID. “Warden, did you– Oh, apologies, sir.” She pauses to listen. “Jupiter City? Did he say why?”
Stark silences her lawyer with a raised hand. “I can, yes. Can you tell me the license plate for the jeep he took?” She races to the corkboard and writes down “FHA_030” on the lounging article. “Yes, sir. I’ll keep you apprised.”
“That wasn’t Crata, was it?” Syerus asks when she ends the call.
“No, but this may work out for us.”
“How do you mean?”
“I need you to get your people to work tracking this vehicle. We’ll start there.” She taps the license plate message. She doesn’t tell him more because she knows her plan isn’t completely legal.
If his off-campus errand is illegal and I catch him, then blackmailing him to help track Liamria could lead to a break in my case. And should the blackmail fail, I’ll still be one step closer to keeping Nuria safe.