16. To Those Below

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The End

At a certain point, it became impossible to tell whether it was Xerxes's energy rushing in my ears or my blood.

The eastside's fifth ring looked quieter with wider streets, more dispersed buildings, and fewer people than the inner rings, but appearances deceived. Even more so than before, my father's hold was uncharacteristically light, a thin sheet of glass placed atop a boiling pot instead of a lid. And even more so than before, energies raged like fire.

What felt like hundreds of pairs of eyes burnt holes in my back, only to disappear when my gaze dipped in their directions. But the glowing flames of their energies amidst the black, empty space of my mindscape when I closed my eyes betrayed their locations. All of their locations. Xerxes's golden blaze gasped for air even after I opened my eyes again.

A block north, two buildings east.

I readjusted the expectations that I'd allowed to loom in the back of my mind. I should have known.

Perhaps prejudiced of me, but I'd expected him to find support and refuge in a poorer section of the city, a place where rigid gods-fearing had its place and people might have proper - if not just - motivation for wanting more than they were due. Although wealth had escaped a considerable portion of the eastside's fifth ring's population, it found its home with several individuals. Their marble homes rose high, wide and far enough from the inner city to escape more arduous taxes. Never one for discomfort, Xerxes had found his home with one of them as well.

Xerxes. So very consistent.

Wealth disparity was just as dangerous to the security harmony of an empire as an invading foreign army armed with green fire. Little was never too little until there was more. Ashbah would never have been too little had the world not existed around it. That wasn't exactly the issue in the eastside's fifth ring. Energies from inside the drabbiest home of an unhinged door to the tallest marble tower of the most intricate carvings alike burned hot and wild enough for white fire to turn green. Give a milpace and they take lunpaces.

Xerxes would have insisted it was about freedom, but Xerxes was young, naive, and lying to himself about his motivations.

No place was freer than Ashbah. And their energies had burned as green as the sea.

"Is there a plan?" Abu asked not for the first time as he squinted up at the estate Xerxes's energy resided. It was indeed the tallest, most intricately carved marble tower.

I got off of my ostrich and extended a hand to help Effat down. "Xerxes will have them hear us out so long as he sees her first."

Rather than touch me by taking it, Effat slipped off the ostrich herself, stumbling a few paces before gaining her footing. The eerie silence of Takehiko's trough behind me weighed heavy in my chest.

I turned to him and muttered under my breath, "What are we not going to do?"

"You're the most condescending person I've ever met in my life," Takehiko snapped back in a whisper, his attention only really half on me. The other half directed up on the tower sharper than the safic that sliced his mother's throat.

I hadn't made it known to him what I'd told our father, and I wasn't planning on it. He didn't understand the situation he was in - both with our father and with whatever was making the blood run cold through my veins. I opened my mouth to press farther, but then the tall, azul main door to the tower cracked open.

I snapped my attention away, my hand on the hilt of my safic before my heart had a chance for its next beat.

Wait. I projected whatever coolness my energy had left onto Takehiko and Abu. Not yet.

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