Stark’s journey back is approximately 8,119 steps from coming to an end, 8,077 if she takes the stairs two at a time. Her mad race back to campus left her little time to catch her breath. She uses the time it takes to cross the Four Hearts campus to reflect on the biggest pieces of information she discovered about Reddic.
One- Reddic’s resources are vast. She suspects the cars and warehouses are just the tip of the iceberg. She also recognizes the resources he commands through his connections. Lulu alone is one mystery, and his tamed leopard yet another, but they’re far from the most dangerous.
Two- the casual air between him and Kirby, as well as details they raised, tells Stark their relationship is an old one, forged into diamond from pressure she can scarcely imagine. She gleamed that Kirby was the more daunting one physically- his role as the Ohai knight also evidence- but dreads that perhaps Reddic may not pale in comparison as much as she wishes.
Three- Reddic’s true allegiance is still a mystery. Whatever his game is, he refused to offer more details to Kirby in order to keep Lady Khadijah- the premier Ohai governor, even among her two peers- in the dark. The web she’s discovered is as vast and intricate as an ant colony. The surface may appear flat, but within lie a multitude of tunnels impossible to navigate.
After Stark climbs the stairs, she completes the last of the 8,119 steps by stopping before Neth’s desk and informing him of everything that transpired. Neth confirms for Stark that the night of her mission ending was the same night as the attack at Jupiter Mall. His fragile calm lasts only until Stark mentions the portion of her tale that involves the government. She witnesses his rage burn hot as the sun shining through the round window behind him. His cane clatters against the desk as he shakes, his biggest pain no doubt bubbling up.
There’s a knock at the door. “Hey, are we still–”
“Not now, Shuri,” Neth barks harshly, keeping his head down. “Can’t you see I’m in a meeting?”
Stark turns toward the doorway slightly, unnerved by how Shuri’s mood changes. He doesn’t glare or pout, nothing surface level. However, the warmth in his eyes cools like a room temperature drink with ice cubes added to the mix.
“My mistake. Sorry,” the young man says, his calm voice only further affirming Stark’s suspicion.
She turns back to Neth after the young man’s departure, waiting silently for an answer, willing to respect his wishes should one not come her way.
“He’s made it plain he cares not for what plagues me. He wants our relationship to be exempt from all of that. To respect his wishes, I had to dismiss him. Presently, I wouldn’t be able to see past the last twenty-two years. But I’m not going to burden you by repeating that tale now, either. Additionally, I’d like to apologize for putting your life at risk. I never would’ve–” Neth stops and flicks his wrist. A whirlwind circulates through the office, first slamming the office door shut, then scattering papers all around. Stark follows his lead and watches the papers flutter about. None of them catch on unseen surfaces, so Neth cancels the whirlwind promptly. “I never would’ve imagined he could meet with a knight directly. Not even Shuri’s mother had managed that, despite her rank.” A venomous tone rises during the last sentence.
“We need to be more cautious now, sir. This isn’t just about Nuria anymore. Her brother’s on the list, too. If we pool together all the things we know about those two, we can assume that both the Silent Slayers and Three Holy Vanusi have stakes in the FHA class of ’92. Contending with one government was nigh impossible enough, but two is an infinity of problems. And now I’m not certain that we can assume those are their only targets.”
“You think the other governments could be involved, also? They did all sign the law allowing Ibri House to be created,” Neth says. “I’d like to give the S’nue governors the benefit of a doubt, but as you say, we can assume nothing. How do you recommend we proceed? Four Hearts is on the verge of extinction, so our means of retaliation are very limited.”
“We fight with the pieces we know they’re after,” Stark replies with a renewed vigor. “They can’t touch Rum with Tameri around. I can’t think of better hands protecting him. As for Nuria, I can be her shield. That is, if you’ll have me back? My mother is still at large, after all.”
“No, I offered you the chance to come back if you delivered useful information. Our backs are still against the wall, but at least we know now some semblance of what we’re faced with. Your part-time suspension from campus has been rescinded.”
Stark wants to feel celebratory, but a nagging fear keeps her sober. Her mother’s return is all but assured, and now that pales to the threat Reddic represents.
“It won’t be easy,” Neth says. “Nuria’s enamored with Ibri House. Zathony mentioned to me she moved back in the day after her house arrest expired. She even continued the class sampling Reddic started on her own. She’s in Lynald’s class as we speak.”
“How do you intend to shield her?”
Stark rises quietly. “Directly. I’m not terribly ahead of Reddic. He’ll be back soon. I have to remove Nuria’s blinders before their reunion. He sinks his teeth in any further, and we’ll lose her for sure.”
Stark turns away, careful not to smear any of the fallen papers with her boots. She doesn’t know if Neth noticed, but his impromptu whirlwind reminded her of being swept away by the knight’s two-handed strike. She bites her lips, nervous about what could happen if he returns with Reddic.
Tameri’s an excellent fighter…but I’ve never seen an Ohaida exhibit such a show of power! If they come to take Nuria and Rum away, we’d be unable to stop them! Even if I convince Nuria–
“Oh, hey! Stark, hey! Where yah been?”
Stark snaps her head forward when she hears Nuria’s excited voice. The officer’s growing anxiety takes a backseat to confusion. The phoenix strolls up in Tyra’s clothes, with the angel inside them, also. “What’s all this about?”
Nuria’s head bobs as she laughs. Tyra bangs her head against Nuria’s, embarrassed. The kimono is stretched thin, the bottom exposing both their legs from the knees down. The collar is made loose enough for both their heads to poke through by lowering the sash to their thighs.
“I kinda burned my clothes off,” Nuria says, still laughing.
“I acted as fast as I could to maintain her…modesty,” Tyra says.
“Why’d you burn your clothes off? You know what, don’t answer that. Nuria, I have to–”
“I can summon my golden flames now!” Nuria cheers.
“–talk to you…” Stark nearly loses her breath. “Wait, when?”
“First, about a week ago. Then again today. But today’s the one that counts! I can’t wait to show Reddic! He’s gonna be so happy!”
Stark steels her spirit in a second, finding no better opening. “You can’t trust him, Nuria.”
The officer watches carefully as the teen’s rambling ceases abruptly, her mood morphing degrees beyond what Shuri’s did earlier. Her abundant joy erodes swiftly, her eyes narrow as her face twists with acute fury, which is magnified deep within her snow-white eyes.
“Why?” Nuria asks. “What is it about Reddic that makes him so bad? You and Neth have been on his back since the start! Why?”
“Nuria, can we talk in private?” Stark asks, hoping to present her case without Tyra hearing something she shouldn’t.
“No! You got something to say, you can say it in front of Tyra. We’d be talking about it later, anyway. So, let’s hear it. Why can’t I trust Reddic?”
Stark chooses her words in a flash. “Because he’s not teaching you out of the kindness of his heart, Nuria. You are a tool to him. People with powers, even more common ones, are generally not allowed in law enforcement. Myself and Officer Roark were given special permissions. Individuals who go through Sudita seeking service jobs are almost always inducted into their respective nation’s army. You may think he’s making you a better Ibri, but he’s only making you into a more powerful soldier for the government. That’s why you shouldn’t trust him.”
Nuria scoffs. “Unbelievable.”
“Believe it, Nuria. Even now, I still–”
“No, you’re unbelievable,” Nuria corrects. “You have some nerve, you know that. Have you learned anything about Reddic at all? Do you know he has a version of himself he works to control constantly? That he doesn’t want me to turn out the same? Of course, not! You don’t speak to him; you don’t see him for who he is! You just spy on him! I’m not dumb! You probably came back the day before him to tell Neth what you found!” Nuria throws both hers and Tyra’s arms toward the admin building, hitting the nail on the head.
“And who cares if he’s some government guy? Are you saying I shouldn’t trust someone just because of that? Even without knowing, I know Tyra’s mother- who I have a grievance with- is some government big shot. That doesn’t mean I’m gonna turn my back on her! And nobody but me determines how I’ll use my powers! Not Reddic, not the government, and not you!”
“Okay, Nuria, you’ve made your point,” Tyra says.
“And where do you get off on distrusting someone at face value?” Nuria accosts Stark, ignoring Tyra entirely. “When this whole school- Neth included- turned their backs on you, remember who came to your rescue- me!”
Tyra clears her throat.
“And Tyra,” the phoenix adds.
Stark’s soul continues to crumble under the weight of Nuria’s ranting.
“I could’ve cared less that your mom was with The Pure because I knew you were an awesome person…but I guess I was wrong. If you can’t fix your issues with Reddic, then you can’t fix my issues with you. Oh, and welcome back.”
Nuria turns her head in the loose collar and nods. The two ladies shamble off slowly, the ribbons in their hair swaying in the breeze.
Stark stands at the door to the admin building, frozen. Frozen by the sting of Nuria’s…truthful words. Frozen by the fear that her suspicions of Reddic hold merit still. Frozen because she knows she can’t trust him past his secrets. The nature of his existence offends every fiber of the officer within her. She thaws and steps back inside the admin building. She has one way to learn Reddic’s secrets, and staying on campus is too big of an obstacle for that goal.