“Sorry I couldn’t get your apples back, Ms. Tiera,” Syra said solemnly.
She had beelined straight to the stall after she left the Peacekeeper building. It was in a relatively busy area, so she had to squeeze her way to get there. Luckily for her, the old lady’s stall was situated in the corner near an alleyway, giving her a spot to relax while passersby went on their way.
“Oh, no worries, dear,” the old goat woman said with a smile. She waved her hooves as if to dispel the negative atmosphere. “Those fellas up in the Higher Sun have been a bit kinder around here, so I’ve still got plenty of those beautiful fruits in stock. A bunch of misplaced apples won’t put a dent in these old bones.”
Syra sighed in relief. “That’s great, Ms. Tiera. But! Here! I still wanted to pay you back somehow.” She shoved the coins onto the old woman’s hooves. “Payment courtesy of the thief! So hopefully that does you some good.”
Old woman Tiera nodded gratefully. “Thank you, Syra.”
“Ohoho, what’s going on around here?” A slender, cleaner rat unlike Torin and his gang approached the couple with a playful tone. “Is this brat here stealing from ‘ya, madame?”
Syra pouted. “Shove off, Masir.”
“So she is?” The rat snickered. “Now come on, Gariell taught you better than that didn’t she?”
“Oh for the love of-” Syra put her foot down. “Ms. Tiera, I’m really sorry, but I have to go and deal with this moron now. Have a good day, okay? And make sure that if anything happens again you make Lias and Marn help you out!”
Syra tried to wrap her arm around the tall rat’s neck, but seeing as she couldn’t, she simply pulled at his scruffy shirt. Wanting to escape the public eye, she dragged him into the alleyway and decided they’d talk here.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“I heard the news,” Masir said. The air about him completely changed. He leaned back against the rusty wall and pulled a smoke out. “Went out and tried to help the Peacekeepers again, huh?”
“No, wrong,” she said, wagging her index finger. “I was there first. They were helping me.”
“Eh, semantics,” he said. “Bottom line is you got involved with the robbery?” He didn’t bother to hide the disappointment dripping in his voice.
Syra shifted around, her tail slinking and wrapping around her leg. “Well, yeah.”
“And how did it go? Honestly.”
“It went… well.”
Masir raised an eyebrow. Smoke rose from the cigarette. Syra sighed and admitted that she had messed up and nearly got herself in trouble.
“So if it weren’t for those two, Torin would’ve gotten his hands on you.”
He took the cigarette out and puffed. He shook his head. “We’ve been over this, Syra. You’re not supposed to mess around with the Disgracefuls. It doesn’t matter how strong you think you are, if they can gang up on you, you’ve already lost.”
“Not only that, you’re a Hybrid. A tiger-human one. Don’t think that Olfo isn’t keeping tabs on you. You should know for sure that he has plans to line his pockets if he ever caught you. I promised Gariell I’d keep you safe, but the second Sa’ir or I hear about it, you’re probably long gone and dead. Think about it. You’re seventeen and you’re still making these rookie mistakes.”
Syra bit her lip and clutched at her shorts.
Masir sighed and put a hand on her head. “I know what you want. And I’m sure you can achieve it. But you’re still too inexperienced.”
“Then ask Gariell to come back home,” Syra whispered.
“What was that?”
“Nothing.” Syra slumped over and sat down. Masir was at least a little bit right. She’d always known to be careful with the Disgracefuls. It was a mistake to try to chase after them recklessly like that.
But she knew deep down she could’ve handled the situation on her own.
“They said they’d accept me, y’know,” she said, attempting to change the subject. Masir sat down next to her. “Trys said I’m a huge help to them. But ‘cause of the Higher Sun they won’t allow them to get new Peacekeepers here.”
“Sounds about right.”
“Those privileged freaks won’t allow us to do anything,” Syra grumbled. “Why do they even care about what goes on down here.”
Masir nodded. “Well, who knows. So long as they command the power, they can say and do whatever they want with us.”
Syra groaned. “Ughh, I wish these things weren’t so complicated.” She stood up and brushed herself off. She held a hand out to Masir and pulled him up. “So, aside from scolding me and telling me that I’m a moron, what else were you doing around here?”
He offered her a slight smirk. “Staking the area out,” Masir said. “Y’see, there’s a big event coming up in the Higher Sun. Something between the Unification faction and the Steel Wall. We don’t know what it is yet, but I can feel the tension all the way down here. I bet you can, too, right?”
Syra put a finger to her chin. “Now that you mention it, Trys was saying that the people are getting restless.”
“Exactly. And there are only four Peacekeepers to try to maintain order. So I’m rounding up a couple of the Lunar to help them out.” Masir started towards the exit of the alley. “I’m trying to ensure that things can go well when things go bad, y’know? The good ‘ol Gariell special.”
“Right.” She followed close behind him.
“I’m also meeting up with Sa’ir later to discuss cooperation between our Collective and her Knives. She knows better than most that we have to work together now.”
“You’re meeting with Sa’ir?! Can I come?”
“Nope. It’s a private meeting, and it’s going to be a serious pain catching her. You know how she is.”
“Aah, right,” Syra said with a frown. “Then what am I supposed to do now?”
“Tell you what.” Masir whistled twice, one in a low pitch and the other high.
Just like with Torin and his gang, someone came answering the call. This time, it was an older fox dressed in tight, grey garbs. The black fox kneeled and gazed expectantly at Masir.
“Find Lias and Marn. Tell them they can expect Syra to be helping them again.”
Eirallys tucked her hair behind her ears as the disruptive wind beat down on her from above.
The eagles descended nearby her and knelt reverently.
“We can arrange a palanquin if you so desire, Lady Eirallys,” the soothing-voiced eagle spoke from behind her.
“I appreciate the offer, but I’ll decline Balo,” she said. She spun around and came face to beak with the massive Gaean. He wore a glossy black vest around his torso, and clean, steel shoes wrapped around his talons. Eirallys herself stood in a simple outfit—a dark tunic and rough, black pants.
“If that is the case, then you should be clear for take off. Listen up, brothers,” he faced his kin. “Should anything happen to Lady Eirallys en route to Ginen, you will face severe consequences. Is that understood?”
“Yes, sir!” the eagles shouted with a salute.
“Good.” They turned around and checked up on one another—seeing if they had the necessary supplies for the overnight trip. Eirallys watched over them with a neutral expression.
Balo approached her and stood to her side. “I sincerely apologize for this, Lady Eirallys.”
She could only shake her head. “If this is the power Rionne wields among the Elders, then so be it.” Eirallys shoved her hands into her pants pockets. “I trust that you will be the better of your peers. Should I hear word that the balance I have tried to maintain collapses, I will be furious.”
The eagle simply nodded. “You can place your full faith in me.”
Eirallys softly scoffed. “I would hope so.”
Silence encompassed them. Only the sounds of tousling feathers and leather straps could be heard. A breeze blew past her, ruffling her tight, black tunic. Everyone around her knew how she felt.
They obviously should. She made no effort in hiding it.
The political situation in the country was, in a word, terrifying. Almost every Tree other than the capital had chosen sides. And now she was leaving it all behind to head to some backwater city.
Eirallys pursed her lips. It had been a bit since she’d heard general information from the Great Trees. She glanced to her side–to Balo the Eagle Seat’s Head. No matter how she felt about the Elder Seats and their agendas, she could always trust him. Some news no matter how large or small would be nice to hear before she departed.
So she sparked a conversation.
“What’s the situation like in Relia?”
“In Relia?” Balo asked, arching an eye.
He called to one of the Eagles in a high pitched screech, most likely a code between the eaglemen. One of them returned the call with three high pitches. Balo nodded and returned his gaze to Eirallys.
“Rys’ La claims that he has major plans for the Anniversary Festival.”
“I see,” she said. “Major plans” was quite an ominous phrase. From the few times she met the Southern Governor, it didn’t seem like he was capable of such a thing. She shook her head. She’d leave it for when she returned. “What about Meines?”
Balo ruffled his feathers. “Unfortunately, Rionne still reigns with full control over the information there, my Lady. Any spy I attempt to send would surely be cut down and she would hold such an act against me and the others.”
Now Eirallys realized she had made a mistake.
She was feeling even worse now.
Luckily, the eagles finished their preparations. They formed a square on the landing platform and announced that they were ready for take off.
“Well then,” Eirallys said. “I shall see you in the near future, Balo.”
“Of course. I wish you well, Lady Eirallys.”
She stepped forward and set herself directly in the middle of their formation. With a flex of her shoulders, mighty scarlet wings sprouted from behind her. She flapped them one by one, ensuring that she could maintain flight.
“Alright, looks good,” she said. “Thank you for accompanying me on this trip, soldiers.”
“Of course, my Lady,” they said in unison.
She beat her wings slowly, a swirling gust of wind circling beneath her. The eagles around her followed suit.
Then, in a swift blur, they shot up into the sky.
After a long day of helping out some unwilling Peacekeepers, Syra found herself walking home in the afterglow of the setting sun. The stalls had packed away, and the streets cleared up. She stretched and yawned, her bones cracking as she lifted her arms up.
If I was a Peacekeeper, I could still be out there working, she thought.
The two she had been helping had practically forced her to go home. But her body was still filled with energy. She juggled going back home or staying out in her head, but a putrid stench ripped her away from her thoughts.
“Hey, Skinless,” a brown dog with an ear missing walked up to her. A couple of other roughened Gaeans stood behind him, spinning their daggers in their paws.
Syra narrowed her eyes at the crowd in front of her. Her muscles tensed as she took one step back. “What do you want?”
The dog snarled. “Torin wants you dead.”
She raised an eyebrow. “If he wants me dead, why isn’t he here himself?”
He bared his fangs. “Olfo beat him half to death. The rat lost all the money he was supposed to give to the boss. ‘Cause of that, we’re here to take care of the loose ends.”
Just like earlier, other unsavory Gaeans had managed to sneak up on her. Syra cursed inwardly. She hadn’t been paying attention. Either that, or the Disgracefuls before her simply stunk that bad.
“We’ll make a killing selling your Skinless corpse to the Higher Sun. You’ll make a nice rug for those damn Sunborn.” The Disgracefuls cackled.
Syra launched forward and slammed her fist straight into the dog’s chest. She jumped to her side and latched onto the nearby building.
“The hell are you doing?! Get her!”
She didn’t know who said that.
She didn’t need to.
Her heart raced.
The only weapon she had were her fists. And there was no way she could just stop and fight them all right now.
She just needed to run.
And there was only one place she could go to.
Her feet clanked against the steel rooftops. Cold breath left her mouth as she panted. The shouts behind her were all it took to tell her they were right on her tail.
She put more force into her legs. They were the one thing she could put her full trust in.
Her speed got faster. The wind rushed by her.
The rabid jeers of the Disgracefuls behind her got quieter.
It looked like she might get away.
Then she slipped.
“Huh?!” She couldn’t have just slipped. A terrible pain stung in her ankles. She looked down at it and grit her teeth. A dart pierced her skin.
The Disgracefuls were close now. She could see the terrifying smirk of the cat in the front. Syra’s heart dropped.
Come on. Get up. Get up!
She slammed her fists into her ankle, but that only made it worse. A chill crawled along her back. She was fast enough to see the cat leap, knife in hand, ready to pierce it straight through her.
Syra shoved all of her weight to her right. She slammed herself against the metal roof. Using that momentum, she crashed all the way to the ground.
Air escaped from her lungs. She barely had a second now to run.
Willing every ounce of strength she had, she stood back up.
She couldn’t run.
She could only fight now.
The Disgracefuls surrounded her. “No more running, Skinless,” they snarled.
Syra spat on the ground. She heaved. “I-I can take you.”
The gray cat laughed. “Even when we can do this?” She lifted her paw up. Red flames flashed above it. Syra bit her lip.
Her breathing was rugged, and she blinked quickly. She was used to messing with the Disgracefuls. They were always making trouble around the Lower Moon. But they had never chased her down like this before.
She messed up.
The Disgracefuls were smug. They watched her panic.
Think Syra… think. She desperately begged herself to come up with a solution. Some sort of answer to get out. But she couldn’t.
She stepped back, her ankle flaring in pain. She winced, but at this point she had no choice.
“W-Wait, boss,” one of the Disgracefuls whimpered.
Syra took another step backwards. The ground beneath her turned solid. It was no longer loose dirt. The buildings around her seemed larger.
“What?! Kill her right now!” the dog barked.
“No, no, look,” a rat squeaked. The Disgracefuls glared at him. “It’s the Plaza.”
Their glares soured. Syra gasped for air. She backed up one more step, and the Disgracefuls howled.
“You think we’ll just leave you alone now that you’re in the Plaza, Skinless?!” the dog yelled. “We’ll wait however long we need to to tear your throat out!”
Syra took a breath in. With one glance behind her, she realized why they had stopped. She had made it. The wide and open Central Plaza stretched before her. The familiar, empty fountain stood tall in the distance.
Her face heated up. Tears nearly fell from her eyes. But she couldn’t. She glared at the predators drooling before her. She wouldn’t let them win. She wouldn’t let them scare her.
“G-Go ahead and wait,” she shouted. Her teeth chattered. “When the morning comes I’ll just get away!”
The Disgracefuls must’ve known how easily she could do that when the sun rose. Even in the early morning, Gaeans would be starting their days around the plaza. And most of them were bound to be a part of the Collective–Syra’s allies. If they waited here, the Peacekeepers would be on their backs.
No matter what, they could not step foot into the plaza and attack her. Otherwise they would be executed.
Getting beat by their boss would be better than death.
The dog clicked its tongue. “We’ll kill you if we see you on the streets.”
They turned around, spitting at her, and walked away.
Syra collapsed. She clenched her fists and slammed them against the cobble ground beneath her.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid! She screamed inside.
The energy she once had at the start of the night was completely gone.
She went limp, her arms and legs splayed out. A tear went down her cheek. She wiped it away immediately and buried her face in her arms.
If she cries, the Disgracefuls win.
If she cries, she loses.
That’s what this meant to her.
Her mother and sister had each told her it was fine to cry. That it was fine to give her some time to herself and be weak.
But it felt like she was going to be crushed.
The Peacekeepers rejected her again. They said it was because of the Higher Sun, but was that even true?
Maybe they just didn’t want her around.
They said no again and again and it didn’t sound like they were going to change their minds, no matter how much she hoped they would.
But wouldn’t that be for the best…?
She scowled. She didn’t want to believe for a second that she could think that.
But it persisted.
The wind brushed by her once more, and she shivered. She shivered. Something normal Gaeans would never do in the cold. Her furless skin was vulnerable. It was Human. But she had a tail. She had ears on her head.
The Disgracefuls had kept calling her Skinless, but that in itself was worse than calling her what she actually was.
If she were truly what they called her, she would be able to have some pride. She would be completely different from them. She would be wholly unique.
But she wasn’t. She was, to them, Half.
Syra curled up and laid on her side. Her heart ached.
“I won,” she whispered to herself. Nothing responded to her. “I… won.”
Despite the cool westward wind feeling pleasant on her skin, the intense speed they flew at made things a bit uncomfortable. She focused her gaze so that she could now see small floating orbs surrounding her, most of them being white.
She reached out and plucked a couple out of the atmosphere.
They buzzed around in her hands.
“They’re quite feisty in this sky region, aren’t they?”
She spun them around like a vortex and poked at them with her fingers.
“Cooperate with me, please?” she asked. The orbs vibrated, but then calmed down. Then, the wind died down around her. She could see the extremely thin white veil wrapped around her. “Thank you, Wind Spirits,” she said with a soft smile.
They bounced around in front of her.
Loosening up her tense muscles and hyper focused gaze, the orbs slowly disappeared one by one.
She turned her body around so that she looked upwards at the dark sky. She could never get used to how beautiful it was, especially since she was this close to that untouchable ocean above.
Hopefully this trip ends quickly, she thought. The current situation in the country was something she’d been trying to find a solution to for years. I do trust Balo, but I have my doubts that he’ll truly abide by his words.
The Six Elders had been split directly down the middle due to recent events in the Trees, the primary cities in the country. Specifically, two factions had formed, and each Elder took it upon themselves to pick a side.
Things had been on a decline recently. And it was all because of her mediating the endless arguments between them. And now that she wasn’t there, she was risking it all.
Rionne had always been difficult, but she sticks to her word.
She spun around again, her body facing the ground beneath.
I still can’t believe they unanimously agreed to send me away. Especially to Ginen of all places. Bloody cesspool of filth.
She’d heard nothing but disgraceful things about the city sitting near its Tree, particularly about the Higher Sun. They had instituted a system called the Three Tiers in which each level grew more and more luxurious and elegant as you went up—which meant in essence that these were people she naturally despised.
All of that would have been acceptable if it weren’t for the Lower Moon’s existence. Nothing was more infuriating than people in power exploiting those beneath them.
This city was just another point of interest in Eirallys’ goal in guiding the country in a better direction, but she had to put it behind her as the political situation grew fiercer in the capital.
“Let’s just end this as soon as possible. Eaglemen, I’m going to speed up a little bit. Keep up with me, okay?”
“Y-Yes, my Lady!” The eagles struggled to say.
And faster than lightning, Eirallys doubled her speed, completely leaving her escorts in the dust.