The HERO has arrived.
60,602 words, which is 600 more than what everyone seems to want. So now I print it out, make Dan read it, and do a copy edit/logic sweep. Then I have to figure out where and how to shop this sucker. I would gladly take suggestions.
I think I schmaltzed out a bit on the end, and I definitely dragged on too long, but I LOVE books that drag on, so long as it’s either entertaining or wraps up unfinished stuff. So I’m leaving it. For now, anyway. I really like this story, actually. When I finished the beta draft, I liked it too, but it felt a bit off. I like it a lot more now. And thank you again to those of you who gave me feedback.
It’s not Tuesday (and it wasn’t last teaser, either. Oops.), but I’m posting chapter two anyway.
Happy Fourth of July!
The Glass Palace
Hal dropped the book again and looked at his guardians to see what their reaction to this appearing/disappearing woman would be. They didn’t even look at him this time, though. In fact, they were so still they looked like they weren’t even moving. It was almost creepy, so he turned away, and by that time the woman had finished crossing the street, come down the sidewalk, and was now not even fifteen feet away.
She’d looked pretty enough from afar, but as she came closer, Hal found that she was nothing less than stunning. Beneath the fur coat she wore a pristine white silk dress, and she had pearls in her ears. She had a strand at her throat as well, a string of white orbs creamy and perfect, all the same size except for one large one in the center of the choker. She was Asian, and her black hair was chin-length, smooth and sleek and shining. Her eyes sparkled, and her mouth was not pouty, not thin, but some magic harmony between, and when she smiled at him again, he saw her perfect, white teeth. Her face was narrow, and her eyes were close-set, her cheekbones high, and her eyebrows thin. Her nose wrinkled a little, too, when she smiled. Which she was doing now.
“Hello,” she said to Hal. “Lovely afternoon, isn’t it?” She had a perfectly flat, American accent, though even with that, Hal couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something extremely foreign about her.
Hal glanced at the goons again, but they were still just standing there, not moving. He looked at their chests, and found himself letting out a relieved breath when he saw their chests rising and falling, albeit very shallowly, and very slowly. He couldn’t see their eyes behind their mirrored glasses, but he was somehow sure that they weren’t looking at him, or the woman. He was pretty sure they weren’t seeing anything at all.
Hal turned back to the woman, who was looking at him patiently, but expectantly. He gave up. “Can I help you?” he asked.
“As a matter of fact, you can.” Her smile widened as she held out her hand, revealing manicured nails and a glittering diamond bracelet. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Howard Porter.”
Hal accepted her hand uncertainly. So, they knew his name. He looked back at the now empty site again. “Look, if this is about the project, you really should talk to Gerry. They just fired me.”
“This is a different project.” She kept his hand captive, stroking it casually as she studied his face. Hal had to work not to yank back his hand. He looked again to his guardians, almost willing them to wake up now. But they remained frozen, and silent.
“Howard Porter,” the woman said, her voice full of silky wickedness, “would you like to hear your destiny?”
Hal glanced around. “Is this some sort of reality show or something?” God, that almost made sense, and as the idea bloomed in Hal’s mind, he knew a moment of hope. He pulled back his hand and raised it with the other in front of his body defensively. “Look, lady, whatever this is, whatever your movie or TV show is about—I’m sure it’s great, but I’m not interested, not today, and not ever. I really just want to get back to work.”
She laughed, and the sound was like a quiet cascade of bells. “I’m not from a TV show or a movie.”
“Whatever it is, I’m still not interested.” Hal turned away, first right, then left, then gave in and ducked between her and the goon at the right and headed for the sidewalk to find himself a bus stop away from the insanity.
And the vision hit him.
The Santa Monica street faded, vanishing almost entirely, and Hal saw instead a strange, surreal landscape of clouds, and light. Not just light, but the purest, whitest light he had ever seen—brighter and sharper than the light of the sun, because it didn’t come from the sun. It was simply there, in everything. And in the center of the clouds of light he saw a palace, made of glass, with a high, high tower in the center. The glass palace shone in the light, reflecting it, like the diamonds on the woman’s bracelet.
Someone was standing at a window in the tower. A man, a woman—he couldn’t tell, and he didn’t care. Whoever stood there was looking right at Hal, a hand held out towards him. Hal couldn’t see the person’s face, or anything about them, but something about whoever it was tugged at him, and made him yearn.
Hal’s breath caught in his chest, and he reached out, too.
But as if his movement had broken the spell, the vision faded, and Hal felt the loss like a blow. His hand was still extended before his body, reaching into empty air. The world seemed darker now, and not just because the vision of light had gone. The sky above had only one cloud, but it had moved over the sun, and Hal was cast once again into shadow. He blinked, then lowered his hand, but he kept staring at the place where the glass palace had been.
The bus stop was gone. The goons were gone. He was standing in the middle of foggy mist, and the woman in the fur coat was beside him, watching his face carefully.
“You had a vision,” she said, a statement, not a question. “What did you see?”
The most beautiful person in the world, reaching for me from inside a palace of glass. Hal shut his eyes again, took a breath, then shook his head. “Nothing. I didn’t see anything.” He stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jeans. He looked around, trying to decide which way to go, but all he could see was fog. Well, he’d just walk away then, and hope he went out of it. He nodded gruffly at her. “Have a nice day,” he said, and walked off.
This time he managed about four steps before the vision came back. It was the same palace again, but this time something was wrong. The light was wrong, and the clouds were too big, too dark. Ominous.
Hal looked to the glass tower again, and he saw the shadowed person once more, reaching, face was full of loss, and hurt, and pain. Hal reached back once more, and once more the vision disappeared. But this time, when it went, Hal stepped forward, trying to follow—he stepped off the edge of the sidewalk and onto the street, twisting his ankle, and he went down in a great crashing heap.
He didn’t fight the fur-coat woman when she bent down to help him up, but he was breathing heavily now, and looking around in apprehension. The palace was gone, and so was the mist. The pair of goons were still at the sides of the bench, frozen and silent, but this time, everything else was, too. A bird hung eerily in mid-air above him. A car that had been barreling down the street, aimed at him, was stopped in its lane, the driver’s mouth open in mid-sentence as he spoke into his cell phone. Back at the site, a backhoe’s cascade of dirt had paused in its descent to earth about half-way down. Only the woman before him moved.
“Drugs,” Hal rasped, as sweat ran down the back of his neck. “Someone slipped me drugs.”
“You are having visions,” the woman said, gently. “You are having visions of your destiny.”
Hal was sitting on the curb, facing the empty lot where the bar had reappeared again. It was a strange, sagging building, and it didn’t look right, like it was a flickering light that might blink out at any second. Hal rubbed at the back of his neck, at the sweat that was gathering there. “This is some sort of joke. Gerry or somebody is pulling a prank.”
“There is no prank. Now, tell me, Howard Porter, what you saw in your vision,” she said.
Hal stared ahead at the building, watching it swell and loom before him. “A glass palace,” he said, quietly. “I saw clouds, and a palace made of glass, with a tower.” He swallowed hard. “And a. . . . somebody.” He shuddered. “Someone very beautiful.”
“Somebody who?” she dogged, as if this were the important part.
“Just somebody.” Hal shut his eyes and tried to remember. So beautiful. “I couldn’t see who it was.”
“Was it a man or a woman?”
Hal flushed, a deep heat that seared his skin, and he braced automatically. Oh, it had been a man. He would only have that kind of sensual longing for a man. But he’d just, out loud, said the someone was beautiful. And he didn’t like the edge to this woman’s voice, the urgency in it. Why did she want to know? What business was it of hers? What was she going to do if he admitted it was a man he’d seen? Who would she tell? After everything that had happened to him today, was he really going to take that chance? Panic and shame made his flush deepen. He wasn’t out, not to anyone, and he wasn’t about to change that for this stranger.
He ducked his head. “I don’t know.” He swallowed, and then, because he knew he couldn’t call her off any other way, he lied. “It was a woman.” He blushed, again, this time from the falsehood, but he made himself look up at her. “A woman. Standing there like a princess in a tower.”
That much was true. It was just that the princess, actually, was a prince.
She stared back at him, her dark eyes boring into him. She looked sort of stunned, and then pained. Then she wiped her face clean and turned away. “The glass palace and tower are before you. And your . . . princess . . . is inside.”
Hal raised an eyebrow at the bar. “It doesn’t look like a palace.”
“The trouble with visions,” the woman said, quietly, “is that while their general idea is almost always true, the actual details are, alas, a bit off the mark.”
Hal stared at the building. This was weird, too weird to be real. It wasn’t really happening. If he wasn’t drugged, then he was asleep. This was just some dream. The woman wasn’t real. The building wasn’t real. It was too shitty of construction, to start. The thing could come down at any second, by the look of the foundation. It was the sort of thing your subconscious put together. It wasn’t real.
The woman bent down beside him. Hal could smell her perfume, something soft and sweet that made him think of movie stars. He tried to remember if he’d ever smelled in a dream before.
“I’ve been watching you, Howard Porter,” she said. “You’re a hard worker, and you’re loyal. You treat other people with respect, even when they don’t deserve it.” She stepped a little closer, and he caught her scent a little clearer: cinnamon, and something woody. “You have a greater destiny than building condos. You want to build dreams. But you are so alone, Howard. So alone.” She pointed to the bar. “The one who is inside that tower is alone, too.”
Hal shifted uncomfortably on the curb. His ankle was killing him, and he wished he would just wake up so this could be over. Because it was so obviously a dream. Even if that sort of thing were real—him? Nobody would ever go to him to rescue anybody.
But even as he thought this, Hal remembered the way the man had looked, and he shuddered. Guilt swamped him, and he wiped at his mouth to try to clear it. When that didn’t work, he turned away.
The woman beside him leaned closer. “What’s this?” Hal caught her peering at his throat, and before he knew what she was doing, she’d reached out and taken the charm on his necklace between her fingers. “St. Thomas.” She looked up at Hal with sudden misgiving.
“Patron saint of construction workers,” Hal said, pulling it back. “My mother gave it to me.”
“And architects, and cooks,” the woman said, but she was still frowning. “The apostle who doubted.”
Hal backed away. “Look,” he said, trying to be firm, but not mean. “I gotta go home. Or wake up, or sober up, or whatever it takes to end this.” But then he looked around him, and stumbled.
The bus stop was gone. The sidewalk was gone. The street was gone. He was standing in the mist again, but this time it was as thick as clouds, so thick he couldn’t even see his feet. And the clouds were full of darkness.
Hal reached up and clutched at his medallion.
The woman took his shoulders gently in her hands and turned him towards the bar, which reappeared as she aimed him at it. It still looked the same, dingy and shambling and half-ruined. He looked up at one of the windows, thinking for a moment that he saw a face at one of the windows, but when he blinked and tried to look more closely, he saw that it was only dingy and black, cracked and broken, the glass taped clumsily in place.
“I’d like to wake up now,” Hal whispered, his throat raw. “Please.”
“You are not dreaming, Howard Porter,” she said, gently. “You are, in a way, awake for the first time.” She urged him forward gently. “Come,” she said, “you need to go inside, and sit down. Have something to drink.”
“Who are you?” Hal whispered, as she led him towards the door. “What’s happening?”
She inclined her head towards him. “You may call me Shinju,” she said. “And I am here to guide you.”
“Into hell?” Hal asked, looking again at the dilapidated building.
She looked amused. “To your destiny.” She reached up and touched Hal’s medallion again, and Hal felt it give, then slide like water into her hand. Before he could protest, she held it out in front of him, and he watched, stupefied, as it melted into a golden pool in her hand, then reformed. She closed her hand before he could see what it was, then lifted his hand and pressed the melted medal into his palm. Hal opened his hand, tentatively, and saw that his St. Thomas medal had been turned into a small golden coin, with the image of a fox on the face.
“There are dangerous people inside, so take care. So long as they only think you are a radom stranger, they will only play games with you, but if they discover who you truly are, they will try to harm you. Tell them as little as possible, and above all, listen to your heart.”
Hal stared blearily at the door, which was going in and out of focus. Sometimes it looked like a door, and sometimes it looked like a great black chasm, with nothing more than a tiny silver strand bridging the gap between the sides. “I don’t want to do this,” he said. His words were slurring.
Shinju sighed. “I wish you had not been Thomas. I wish you were anyone but that one—well, I suppose you’re better than Judas.”
“Hal,” Hal corrected. “My name is Hal.” He felt very, very lightheaded—almost drunk. Over. He wanted this dream to be over.
“No. Your name is Howard Abner Porter, whose patron saint is Thomas the Apostle. But whatever you are, you are all that I have,” Shinju said, sadly. “You are all we have.”
The prince, Hal thought. Or princess. Someone. He looked up at the door again, watching it flicker between plank of wood and gaping chasm.
“What am I supposed to do?” he asked. He turned to Shinju, but he decided there was something really wrong with his eyes, or this dream was getting very, very weird because she didn’t look human anymore. Her nose looked longer, and darker, and she looked . . . . furry.
“Go to Morgan,” Shinju said, her voice soft, and strange, echoing oddly in Hal’s mind. She pulled his face down and pressed three kisses onto it, one on each eye, and one in the center of his forehead. “To Morgan,” she whispered, and let go.
Hal opened his eyes, and saw that she was gone.
He looked up at the BAR sign, at the sagging building that sucked light, at the clouds that surrounded it. Then he looked at himself, plain and boring, covered with concrete dust, holding a golden coin in his hand.
It was a bad, bad idea, going into this building, whatever it was. It was a mistake, too—it had to be, because there was no way he was going to be able to help anyone. The strange accusations of the man in white paled to the insanity of this, and for a moment doubt consumed Hal, making the world even darker than it already was, and for a moment, he almost turned back, to run wherever the clouds would take him. Then he touched the gold coin in his pocket, and he saw the prince in his mind again, smiling down at him from the tower, his beautiful face fixed on him, and Hal forgot that he wasn’t good enough to save him, forgot that he’d told the fur-woman that he’d seen a woman, forgot that this sort of adventure never happened to him, and the next thing he knew, he was opening the door to the bar and stepping inside.
His head was a little clearer as soon as he stepped inside, and so Hal took a steadying breath and stood in the entryway, assessing. The bar looked a lot better inside than it did from the outside, but it was still a sorry sort of place. The foundation had some pretty significant cracks, judging by the way the floor sloped to the large fissures in the walls, though someone had tried to cover those up with plaster. There were several brick pillars throughout the main room, which Hal could tell had been added after construction, and rather clumsily at that. They couldn’t be doing much good. Instead of being placed to bear the lode, they were just sort of scattered about, obviously pleasing someone else’s aesthetic instead of actual architecture.
It wasn’t even that great of an aesthetic, either, in Hal’s opinion. The place was gloomy and dark, painted a rich honey-brown which should have made it look elegant, but it just made the place dark. The lights were dim, and there were too few of them. There were too many tables crammed in, and the place was smoky, which was going to get the owner one hell of a fine if the police found out.
Of course, something told Hal that the police weren’t even going to see a building here when they drove by.
Thinking this made him nervous again, and he tried to refocus on the structural defects because they were familiar and strangely calming. But the patrons inside the bar had started to notice him, and it was getting hard not to notice them back. They were staring at him and moving slowly closer, not unlike, Hal thought uneasily, dogs to the kill.
There weren’t many people here, but they were weird. They were, technically, very beautiful, but they were also strange, even for California. Everyone was tall and lithe and lean, which was pretty standard, but there was something about their faces that put him off. They were too perfect, too sculpted. And they all had weirdly colored hair, and strange clothes that looked like they belonged in some glamour version of Lord of the Rings with their tunics and glittering beads and skin-tight leggings.
Hal wondered, a little hopefully, if this was maybe some sort of movie set, but he didn’t see any cameras.
Three people were approaching Hal, and he couldn’t have told you if they were men or women if you’d have put a gun to his head and told him his life depended on his answer. All three were lithe and all and wore the loose tunic-like garments; one had gleaming blue shoulder-length hair, one had short bright yellow hair, and one could have doubled for David Bowie, but their faces were not definitively male or female. He wasn’t even sure they were human. He wasn’t sure what that left, but “human” just didn’t seem to fit.
Magical. They seemed magical. But whatever they were, he was pretty sure they didn’t like him.
“Hello,” the blue-haired one said, wrinkling a nose at Hal and casing amused glances at his companions. “What have we here? A stray?”
The yellow-haired one giggled and put hand on hip, cocking the latter to one side. “It could use a bath.”
Female—Hal would swear that one was a woman. He tried, surreptitiously, to check for breasts. Yes—a woman, definitely. The David Bowie one, too. Maybe. Probably.
Hal cleared his throat and gave a curt, Midwestern-style nod. “Hello.” He wasn’t sure what else to say. He tried to remember what Shinju had told him to say and not to say. He couldn’t remember a thing. Just that name. Morgan. He was supposed to go find Morgan. “Uh—is Morgan here?”
The three exchanged glances, their penciled eyebrows lifting high into their brightly-colored hairlines.
“Who wants to know?” the blue one asked.
Hal checked the urge to reach up for his medal and clutched at the coin in his pocket instead. What was he supposed to say? The truth? If not the truth, what lie? What was he doing here, anyway? What was he trying to do? See Morgan—why? Who was Morgan? The princess? That made so little sense now, standing here—clearly there was no princess, or prince, and if anybody did need rescuing here, he couldn’t help them.
Oh, Jesus. Hal took a quiet breath, then let it out. “A friend,” he said, because he had to say something. “Morgan is . . . a friend.”
This amused them a great deal, and Hal stood, patiently, waiting until they finished laughing. The blue-haired one recovered first, waving his hands at his companions in a wait, wait motion.
“No, I think this could be fun,” he said, breaking into laughter again at the end of his sentence. He wiped at his eyes, careful not to disrupt his eye makeup, then nodded off to his right. “Take him over. I want to see what happens.”
“Should we take him without Eagan present?” the yellow one asked, a little hesitantly.
The blue one sneered at her. “When Eagan is gone, I am in command of the Oasis. And I’m bored. I want to have some fun.”
Eagan? These people were in league with the bastard from the building site? Hal managed to contain his expression, but his hands balled into fists. Eagan wasn’t good news, but he wasn’t here just now. That was good.
Except he still didn’t know what the hell was going on.
The David Bowie woman came up beside Hal and linked her arm in his. “Come on,” she said, her voice full of false sweetness. She made a face at his dirty clothes, then winked at the blue-haired man. “I’ll take you to Morgan myself.”
“I hope you’re good with locks,” the male one said, and they all three burst out laughing again.
Hal glanced over his shoulder at the door, wishing he dared just turn around and leave. He wondered if he even could.
Most of the room was watching them now as Hal’s escort made a parade of their walk across the room; more strange, beautiful people with odd hair and painted faces laughed and pointed as Hal passed by, or whispered behind their hands. The blue-haired one went before them, clapping his hands and calling out, “Attention, attention!” to make sure their audience was as full as possible, and the yellow-haired one lingered behind, sniggering and occasionally goosing Hal to make the nearest tables laugh.
Hal, for his part, tried to remain as non-responsive as possible, but while he managed to school his exterior, his interior wasn’t so manageable. He wondered what kind of trouble, exactly, he was in. Was he going to die? He tightened his grip on the coin inside his pocket, taking comfort in its smooth heat against his sweaty fingers.
The David Bowie woman let go of him as they approached the bar where a door led to what Hal would guess was a kitchen, and he saw movement on the other side.
“Morgan!” Hal’s escort called out, her voice sharp and mean, full of the sing-song of playground teasing. “Morgan, someone’s here to see you!”
Their audience laughed. Hal looked around to see who this Morgan might be, but all he saw was the bartender, bent over inside an open cooler, fetching drinks, leaning so far in that her skirt nearly tipped up over her bottom. Little silver chains dangled from the sides of the black leather garment, the only part of her visible beyond her legs. The blue-haired man leaned on the bar, bending sideways as if to speak to someone on the other side, though he kept his eyes on the eager crowd. “Yes—we think he might be your prince, come to set you free!”
Oh God, Hal thought, trying not to wince, feeling his face heat as the laughter swelled around him, and he braced, waiting for this Morgan to come through the door. But instead, the bartender climbed back out of the cooler and turned around.
And he saw the prince in the room of his tower, looking down at him in surprise, and a little confusion.
His face, his beautiful, perfect face . . . .
Hal blinked, and the vision faded, and he found himself staring face to face at the bartender instead. Except he had been wrong. This was the person from his vision—he could feel it in his bones—but this person wasn’t a man at all. She was androgynous, yes, but she was decidedly female. She was looking at him warily, though she cast occasional, irritated glances at the crowd. She was very cute, in a comfortingly normal-looking way. She had dark brown, almost black hair, not weirdly colored at all. She wore a black leather vest and the black skirt full of chains, and she had silver bracelets on her wrists, and another silver circle at her neck. She wore no makeup, though her lashes were very long, and just a bit curly. She was slender, but slightly muscular, and she was normal sized, not impossibly tall like the other creatures in the room. The only thing odd about her was that her hair stuck out at crazy angles—it didn’t look artful, just messy.
She wore only a vest. No shirt. No bra. And when she moved, he could see beneath it, and—yes. Absolutely, she was female.
And for the first time in Hal’s life, the sight of a woman made him aroused.
The bartender glared at the blue-haired man. “Very funny, Talin,” she said, her voice curt, but Hal thought he heard vulnerability underneath.
The blue-haired man pouted. “You’re no fun anymore, Morgan. No fun at all.”
“She’s sore because Eagan’s gone,” someone shouted from the back of the room. “Or, rather, she isn’t sore, not anymore, because Eagan is gone.” Everyone laughed. Everyone but Morgan, and Hal. But for Hal, it wasn’t just because he didn’t find the joke funny, but because he was tugging at his ear; there was a strange ringing in it. It was a hum, and he realized now it had been coming and going for several minutes. It was driving him crazy. He looked around, but no one else seemed to notice it.
The blue-haired one raised an eyebrow. “Is it Eagan she misses?” He leaned over the bar, reaching out to stroke the bartender’s cheek. “Or is it what he puts between her cheeks? Because that we can see to ourselves.”
The humming started again, aggravated by the crowd’s roar, but Hal’s blood was already boiling at the mention of Eagan’s name. This woman was that bastard’s girlfriend? Maybe not girlfriend. Maybe that’s why she needs to be rescued.
The woman who needed to be rescued slapped Talin’s hand away. She turned to Hal, still glaring. “Well?” she demanded.
Hal swallowed, trying to put moisture back into his mouth. His ears, blessedly, were calming again. “Ah—can . . . can I have a drink? Please?”
“Oh, Morgan would love to give you a drink, honey,” another heckler called out, and Hal tried to keep himself still and blank as everyone roared again, and the bartender turned a deep, angry red.
But she was still glaring at Hal, and everyone else was laughing so hard, not paying him any attention, so Hal leaned forward just slightly and looked her in the eye as he mouthed, “I’m sorry.”
He wasn’t sure what he’d expected her to do, but he certainly hadn’t expected her to look startled. But she recovered quickly, busying herself by reaching up above her head to pull down a glass. “What do you want?” she asked.
It took Hal a minute to register that she meant, “what do you want to drink.” This was in part because the lapels of her vest gaped as she reached up, giving him a clear view of one very small, pert breast. And once again, he felt a rush of heat.
Well, he thought, as the vest fell back into place and the lust rolled away. This is something different.
“Beer,” he said aloud, a little hoarsely. He glanced at the taps, but he couldn’t see any labels or logos to let him know what this place served. “Please.”
“Coming up,” she said, pulling down a glass. She cast several glances at him as she drew his drink, still giving him that odd look.
The laughter had died down now, and Talin was leaning against the bar. He looked first at Hal, then at Morgan with naked disdain and arrogance that both infuriated Hal and made him feel self-conscious.
“This ragamuffin, Morgan, says he is your friend,” Talin said, once again, loudly enough for his audience to take in, and he paused to let the titters die down before he continued. “We thought we should bring him to you right away.”
Morgan gave him a humorless smile. “How kind of you.” She shoved the beer in front of Hal, then turned back to the cooler and whatever it was she had been doing before. But Hal saw her glance at him several times from beneath her arm, as if trying to make out who he was.
The David Bowie woman crossed her arms over her chest and pouted. “Morgan, you spoil-sport! We want to see him try to free you. No one’s tried in ages, and we’re bored.”
“Yeah, we want to see if he can break your chains!” someone shouted from the back.
Chains? Hal frowned, and looked at Morgan again, specifically at her skirt and the silver chains that dangled there. But this time he saw her ankles, too, and her wrists. And that was when Hal realized the silver bracelet she wore was not a bracelet, but a cuff, attached to a long chain leading to her other wrist, which was in turn attached to another chain which then dangled towards the floor, and her ankles, to cuffs that circled her there as well. They were delicate, as thin as string, and they were joined in the center by a long silver chain that snaked across the floor, though what it was attached to, Hal couldn’t quite see.
“Those are her marks of shame,” the yellow-haired woman said, leaning in close to Hal’s ear. “But then, you know that, don’t you, since you came to save her?” She spoke in a mock whisper he was pretty sure they could hear on the other side of the room. The humming sound was back again, and Hal set his teeth against it. Maybe it was something with their voices?
“It’s the prince, come to save the princess!” another heckler shouted, and they all laughed.
Hal couldn’t help it. He reached up and pressed his fingers against his ear, shutting out the humming sound, which was now so loud it made him want to scream. It was when they spoke—sometimes some of the words cut into his teeth. “It’s the prince,” was fine. But “princess” echoed too loudly in his head. It hurt. His eyes were burning, too. He blinked at Morgan, who had turned around again. She looked angry until she saw him, and then she came forward, worried.
Are you okay?
The others were laughing, but Hal heard the word inside his head. It made the buzzing quiet down, just a little, and he lowered his hand again. He cast a careful glance at Morgan, fairly sure that was her voice he’d heard, but honestly, he wasn’t taking anything for granted anymore. She was watching him back, and as their gazes held, she lifted an eyebrow. Then he heard her voice again.
You can hear me? she asked.
Hal startled, and blinked. His eyes darted to Talin, but he was too busy playing to the crowd.
You can hear me, Morgan said, sounding surprised. That’s . . . unusual. And you don’t feel like a magician, though there’s something magic about you. She narrowed her eyes at him. Your mind feels strange. You aren’t laumu, and you can’t be a hunter. She frowned. What are you?
How was he supposed to answer? Hal glanced nervously around, but the others were too busy enjoying their own jokes to pay him any attention.
Morgan’s eyes widened, her expression leaning less towards confusion and more towards horror. Oh, no. You’re human.
Hal glanced around once more, then, very carefully, nodded.
Talin clamped a hand on Hal’s shoulder as he addressed the crowd. “I think it should happen on stage, don’t you? He’s already in costume.”
More laughter. Morgan was ignoring them all now, studying Hal with an intensity that made him want to squirm, but he held still, waiting to see what she would do, because he was fairly certain she was about to do something, and every survival instinct he had told him not to get in her way.
He did, though, reach out and take a very deep drink of his beer. Then he took another.
She watched him drink. They don’t know you’re human? she asked, once more inside his head.
Hal paused, then very subtly shrugged.
She looked relieved, though only slightly. Just don’t try anything rash—just do what they say, and let me guide you, and you’ll make it through okay. I still don’t understand how you can mind-speak with me as a human, but we’ll sort that out later. Tell me your name—just think it, very, very loudly. Don’t close your eyes, she added, when he did. Just look into my eyes, she instructed, meeting his gaze, and imagine you can write the words on the inside of my head with your mind.
Hal did as she asked, but he was a little distracted by how beautiful she was. He was thinking of her breasts, too, and her waist, and her legs, which shocked and unnerved and aroused him all at the same time. Maybe I’m not, he thought, confused, but relieved, too. Maybe if it’s the right woman. Or maybe if it’s just this woman. He stared into her eyes, lost in them. Once again he saw the androgynous figure in the tower, only this time she looked like colors on an evening sky, or stars in the heavens.
It’s not the body I’m attracted to, he thought, dizzily. It’s the soul.
Her lips curled up in a wry, but soft smile. Your name, she reminded him. And he knew, then, that she had “heard” every thought about her beauty, and her body, and her soul, and he blushed.
He forced himself to focus. Hal. His name was Hal. Except, as he let go, he felt himself going formal. Howard. Howard Abner Porter. My name is Howard Abner Porter.
Hello, Howard, she whispered back. The words felt like a caress inside his mind. My name is Morgan, and I am the Oasis.
Someone gripped his shoulder again. “Performance time!” Talin shouted, and abruptly the world went dark as a heavy, stinking cloth was wrapped around his head, and he couldn’t hear Morgan’s voice, or see her, anymore.