This story was inspired by one of the "Thinks" proposed by Dr. Seuss's "Oh the Thinks You Can Think!". If you are unfamiliar with the book, you can find an online version of it here. Every day from now through February 15th, I'll be posting a short story or poem based on one of the "Thinks" in the book. Enjoy!
The long Night approached.
From a purple-stoned balcony atop his family estate, Zemsta Amicus surveyed the sprawling city below. Na-Nupp, the capitol of his world, shone in the last dying rays of Dusk. But that season was drawing to a close, and soon the season of Night would reign.
He savored the golden light as it played across many-hued stone buildings, shaped by master carvers into the likenesses of great trees, breaking waves, seashells, even varieties of mythical beasts. For three months, the only light to warm them would come from electric torches.
A breeze drifted across the balcony, ruffling his black hair and kicking up the tails of his red and gold formal jacket. Zem breathed in until his chest was full, willing his nerves to settle. These first few hours of Night would be the most important of his life. He would need absolute focus.
A subtle click came from behind and the balcony door whooshed open. The festive buzz of his family’s annual Nocturne Ball washed over him, shattering the moment of quiet that was likely to be his last of the evening.
“Hard to believe we’re in the last season already,” a familiar voice said. “Dawn, Day and Dusk went by too quickly this year.”
Pik Tadarys slouched against the balcony, the colors of his suit shifting subtly between shades of blue as he moved. His family’s signet ring, an intricate weave of silver thorns topped by a ruby fireblossom, clinked against glass as he offered Zem a drink. He flashed his trademark lazy grin.
“Your guests are missing you. Don’t tell me you’re going to skip your own ball again.”
Accepting the glass, Zem forced a smile and met his oldest friend’s gaze. “Technically it’s my family’s ball. My parents are leading the revelry, which leaves me free to be the rebellious and ungrateful son.”
Pik snorted. “As your oldest friend, I approve of the one time per year that you’re irresponsible.” He mirrored Zem’s stance and pointed skyward. “Manen and Marama are out.”
Zem nodded, observing the two full moons above them. “Menulis won’t appear until complete dark.”
“That’ll be soon – only a half-hour’s left in the cycle. So if you’ve planned anything villainous, better tell me now. The tekitiwhi won’t be asleep for long.”
Though he forced a chuckle, Zem was only half listening. He’d never let Pik see it, but the tekitiwhi had indeed been on his mind. Once they had been a popular challenge for hunters due to their uncanny ability to avoid traps. Then, a few decades ago, scientists had discovered the crafty tekitiwhi bird’s hidden talent – precognition. Through some twist of genetic fate, the bird’s ability allowed it to glimpse into the future and discern its hunter’s intentions.
Moments after this discovery, the Constabulary had come knocking. Although crime on their world was uncommon, and violent crime was rare, the leaders of law enforcement leapt at the chance to stamp it out completely. Tekitiwhi genes had been crossed with much larger birds of prey, their intelligence boosted, and soon the Constables had a tool for predicting major crimes and capturing the perpetrators before any damage was done.
But the Constables kept a secret. Though it was carefully guarded, the rich and privileged tended to acquire knowledge that the average citizen never would – and Zem and Pik were most definitely rich and privileged. So it happened that, two years ago, they had learned the tekitiwhi’s only weakness.
Soon that weakness would come to its full, and with Pik by his side, Zem would finally go to work. He took a long gulp of frost brandy, savoring its burning chill as it oozed down his throat.
“Actually, I do have two things to attend to before the ball is over. Family duties.” He glanced at Pik. “Care to join me? You might find one of them interesting.”
Pik waved toward the door with a flourish. “As long as we get to misbehave, who am I to deny the richest man in Na-Nupp?”
Zem and Pik stepped out of the gravity lift, into a round atrium that adorned the very top of the Amicus estate – the Crystal Garden.
The circular wall – a single sheet of ironglass – had been shaped and stained to portray scenes from Na-Nupp’s history. The dome, formed with more ironglass and inlaid with gems to mimic the constellation patterns, had been retracted for this special occasion. Like the petals of a flower, it opened fully to the darkening sky.
Dozens of pedestals formed concentric rings in the floor, each topped with sculptures wrought in glass, blood opal, rainbow emerald, and nebula-stone. And in the atrium’s very center, seemingly suspended on nothing, the gigantic Starcrystal glimmered. Silvery, ethereal light glowed from deep in its core. The light was dim, but in a few hours it would blaze to new life again.
A mousy man with graying hair and a long wrinkled coat darted around the console beneath it, consulting a chart in his hand and making adjustments to the massive stone’s orientation. He spoke to himself in a hurried voice, oblivious to their approach.
Pik laughed softly. “You always find the best mad scientists.”
Zem stifled a chuckle and waved his hands to get the older man’s attention. “Master Eolai?”
“Gah!” The master stumbled back, clutching at his chest. “Good gracious, sir, you move like a ghost.”
“Apologies.” Zem gave an indulgent smile. “Is everything in order?”
“Oh, um, very nearly. Uh…yes, very.” Consulting his chart, Master Eolai spouted a string of equations describing the lunar cycle and began spinning nobs and flipping switches. As the speech reached a crescendo, he finished by throwing one last lever. “And here we go!”
With a rumble, seams between the floor stones split apart and hundreds of mirrors rose into the atrium. Observing them with affection, Master Eolai seemed to relax.
“There you have it, sir, all arranged perfectly. In mere moments, Menulis will appear and the harvest will begin. Of course, I will remain here for this cycle to ensure all goes well. As you know, this light can be quite deadly if uncontrolled.”
Zem nodded, having heard what he’d expected. Night season’s silvery moonlight supplied most of Na-Nupp’s power. During this next twenty-six hour cycle, the unique arrangement of all three moons in the sky would allow them to collect over half of their entire year’s power needs. Zem’s family had possessed the Starcrystal, their world’s most powerful lunar battery, for countless generations, and what power they didn’t use they gave to the people.
He favored the scientist with a pat on the shoulder. “I never doubted you. We’ll leave you to it, then.”
Turning to leave, Zem spotted Pik and stopped short. His friend had approached a pedestal several yards back, its sculpture depicting an iridescent dragonfish leaping from wave to wave over an amethyst sea. Head down and shoulders hunched, he traced the delicate lines of the sculpture with his finger.
Zem stepped toward him, then hesitated. Okay, he said to himself. You knew this conversation was coming. It had to happen. Reaching into his trouser pocket, he brushed the rectangular object resting there and drew comfort from it. Just be supportive. Steeling himself, he moved to Pik’s side.
“I can’t believe it’s been a year,” Pik said, his voice almost a whisper. He turned to Zem with a pained expression. “How is Ara, Zem? Has there been any change?”
“She still sleeps, and no one knows why.” Zem shook his head, allowing his own grief and despair to surface. “Whatever they did to her, it’s like her body is trying to heal but her mind won’t let it.”
Zem’s heart wept for Ofiara, his twin sister. Exactly one year ago, he had discovered her under a grove of chorus trees in a remote corner of the estate grounds – unconscious, beaten and half-strangled, her dress cut to ribbons. Although the Constables had investigated tirelessly for months, they had come no closer to uncovering a solid motive or the identity of the attackers.
But they didn’t know what Zem knew.
“It would’ve happened tonight, Zem. We would have been married if they hadn’t…” Pik clenched his fists. “She never hurt anyone.”
“Take heart, my friend.” Zem squeezed his shoulder. “Justice may be closer than you think.”
“Menulis has arrived!” Master Eolai exclaimed.
Menulis emerged from the shadows. The radiance of three moons intermingled, shifting and deepening until it felt almost solid, as if the energy possessed a physical presence. It danced around them and leaped from mirror to mirror and finally soaked into the Starcrystal. The immense jewel hummed as it spun on its axis, drinking in the light. In moments its internal glow began to brighten.
Zem smiled to himself – a dark smile full of intention. His window had opened, and the real work could begin.
“I have one more thing to do,” he said. “Then we’ll rejoin the ball and forget our sorrows. For now, though, I need an ally who can be discreet.”
“You know that you have one.”
“Good. We must appear to have separated, so you should go first – back through the ballroom, and wait for me at the lift in the southeastern wing. From there, we’ll proceed to the vault.”
Pik gaped. “You’re taking me to your vault?”
Zem flashed a mischievous grin. Each noble house kept a vault containing the bulk of their wealth, but none ever shared the location outside family. As the wealthiest of the nobility, the Amicus family took special care to guard theirs, and rumors of its location had been the subject of gossip for years. Traditionally, the firstborn of each generation carried the vault key until it passed to their offspring. And although Zem and Ofiara were twins, it was known that Ofiara had been born first.
Pik gave him a reappraising eye. “Zemsta Amicus, plotting something secret?” Draining the rest of his drink, he moved toward the lift. “This will be a night to remember.”
After he disappeared, Zem counted to one hundred, all the while brushing the object in his trouser pocket. One by one, he reviewed every step of his task this night. When the moment came he would have to act swiftly. At one hundred, he squared his shoulders and stepped through the gilt and clockwork doors of the lift.
Moments later, the doors opened on the festivities. Zem worked his way through the colorfully costumed crowd, stopping occasionally to socialize with a guest or admire the acrobats swinging from chandelier to chandelier above them. Occasionally, the sounds of celebration were punctuated by tiny bursts of sparkling light from smokeless micro-rockets.
Finally, he reached the far side of the ballroom. After plucking two twisted flutes of ghost wine from a passing tray, he ducked through the exit.
“I can’t believe it. All along, the vault was under your estate?” Pik shook his head in disbelief.
“It is the last place people would expect,” Zem said. “And we’re farther underground than you might think.”
Pik sipped his ghost wine, the foggy liquid swirling around his lips and nose in lazy tendrils as he drank. His eyes stayed locked on the monstrous doors before them, as if he couldn’t look away.
Zem tried to see the doors the way Pik did now, as if this were his first time beholding them. Large enough for a small airship to pass through, they felt more ancient even than the mansion they hid beneath. Covered with an intricate web of patterns wrought in gemstones and an unbreakable reddish metal that no one could identify, they practically shouted for would-be intruders to turn away.
The friends stood for a moment in reverent quiet, as if this were a sacred place. The gravity of the doors seemed to drink in all sound until Zem could hear his own pulse. Or perhaps his heart was thudding harder now. The time was drawing near.
“I figured out why,” he finally said, glancing over at Pik. “Why they attacked Ara.”
Pik stiffened, swallowing. “There’s no motive good enough.”
“But there is one that makes sense. They were after her key.” Zem gestured at the vault door. “Everyone knows she’s the firstborn. That’s why her dress was cut.”
“But how could they use it? Only your family knows where this is. And me now, I guess.” Pik sighed. “Just another mystery.”
“There’s something they didn’t know, though.” Reaching into his breast pocket, Zem withdrew a long sliver of ironglass. Notches were cut into its fine edges, the sides etched with angular designs and inlaid with silver. Even in the low light, it shone as he turned it over in his hands. “Not every family tells the truth about who was firstborn.”
Zem reveled in the shock and confusion painted across Pik’s face. His mouth twisted as if he were trying to force out words that his mind couldn’t find.
“What…but…” He rattled his head from side to side. “Sh-she never even told me! Me!”
“And now you know.” Zem lifted his eyebrow with a conspiratorial air. “No going back now. Shall we continue?”
Without waiting for a response, he approached the vault. A moment later, he heard Pik shuffle along behind him. As he neared the ancient doors, veins of gemstone began to glow and pulse, their light flowing toward a chest-high image of the Amicus family sigil. Zem reached out with the key and the sigil opened to reveal a backlit keyhole. The key slid smoothly into the aperture with a satisfying click, and a tiny metal sliver lanced from the door to jab the top of Zem’s hand. He flinched involuntarily.
“Two-stage security. The doors respond to the key – the lock responds to my blood.” He darted a look at Pik, who was still white-faced but doing his best to appear unaffected. “Whoever attacked Ara would never have gotten in anyway.”
Pik nodded mechanically. Chuckling, Zem turned the key. A series of heavy clinks and thunks resounded through the doors, and finally a seam split down their middle. The air shifted, sucked into the vault as the doors swung inward. Zem took both their wine flutes and set them outside the doors.
They stepped inside and Pik’s mouth fell open again. Before them a chamber – no, a cavern as massive as the ballroom above – held shelves, tables and chests, all glittering with more wealth than he ever thought could exist in one place. Again he grasped for words, and again he failed. Observing him, Zem saw as Pik’s eyes slowly changed from stunned to hungry. Desirous.
Pik turned away, sliding his hands across a chest of color-shifting nebula-stones. “If only they’d known the truth…maybe she would be with us now.”
Grasping the rectangular object in his pocket, Zem focused on his friend’s back. “I heard them escaping, you know. I was moments too late, and they must have heard my approach. Then it became a choice of chasing them or helping my sister.”
“Cowards,” Pik growled, dragging his hand through the gems. “Villains.”
“Yes. What they don’t know – what no one knows – is that I found something that the Constables never did.” Pik’s shoulders stiffened. Zem pressed on. “By the time they arrived, it had disappeared. But I saw it.”
Pik’s head turned slowly. He looked over his shoulder with narrowed eye.
“I saw the mark on her neck. The mark of a ring from the hand that strangled her. A signet ring.” He tensed, waiting for the perfect moment. “And then I realized something. Ara would never have gone to that grove with someone she didn’t trust.”
Pik exploded into action. Whipping around, he swung with his right arm as a slim dagger sprang from his coat sleeve. Zem danced back, missing the blade by an inch, then struck out with lightning speed. His right palm slapped against Pik’s chest, and a mechanical click sounded as the rectangular object attached itself to his costume.
Stunned, Pik paused for an instant to stare at the strange machine whirring against his chest, its red indicator light blinking. In that heartbeat, Zem flipped the device’s single switch and stepped back. Pik made a choked sound of surprise.
The four sides of the device popped open. Four silvery wires sprang out, each capped with a diode and a blinking light, and wrapped around his wrists and ankles. Two hidden compartments in the vault floor also opened, as well as two in the ceiling. As if guided by an invisible force, thick chains snaked out and clamped onto the four diodes clinging to Pik. In the blink of an eye, they retracted enough to hang him spread-eagle in the center of the vault.
“You would have been wed today.” Zem stood before his captive friend, his expression grim. “Except, you wouldn’t have. Because Ofiara had doubts – doubts she confided only to me – about the sincerity of her beloved Pik Tadarys. About his love for riches and his thirst for more at any cost. She came to realize what you truly wanted.”
Gasping, Pik struggled against his bonds. “Everyone knows the naivety of an Amicus,” he spat. “With a fraction of this vault, you could control half the world. I could have helped your power grow, and she was going to ruin everything! All I wanted was to help you – to help her!”
“I found my sister bloody and lying in a heap, cradled only by the light of the moon!” Zem shouted, breathing hard. “And by the light of the moon again, I will have justice.”
Pik’s eyes widened in horror. “Zem, I’m your friend! Would you really do this? Take your vengeance, only to face the Constables and leave your family?”
“It’s the Nocturne, friend.” Zem smiled, allowing satisfaction to show through his fury. “The time of three moons – the one cycle the tekitiwhi lie dormant. Just like the night you took her from us. I have awaited this moment for a year.”
“What –” Pik swallowed hard. “Will you…? P-please don’t kill me.”
“Did she beg, too?” Zem stepped closer, eyeing daggers at his betrayer. “Did Ara beg you to stop?”
Pik hung his head, all bluster and bravado gone. “Please,” he whispered. “I can disappear.”
“Yes. You will.” Zem walked back to the vault doors and opened a panel on the wall beside them. After twisting four numbered knobs to enter his code, he began adjusting levers and flipping more switches.
“Do you know what pure, distilled Nocturne light does to living tissue?” He asked over his shoulder. “Breaks it down at the microscopic level, slowly unraveling it until nothing remains but mist.”
“Zem, I –”
“Did you also know this vault has another layer of security? At random intervals, it floods completely with Nocturne light. You simply cannot be too careful in these uncertain times.”
“I swear, I’ll –”
Zem turned back to his foe. “Even I don’t know when it will happen. Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps in a week, or even two. So the real question, Pik, is what will take you first? Thirst? Hunger? Your own cowardice?” His gaze hardened. “Or just the moonlight?”
“People know I was with you! What will you tell –”
“But, we were last seen at the ball separately,” Zem replied with mock sincerity. “And you left early, while I still mingled with my guests. So, how could I have any idea where my friend Pik has disappeared to?”
“Whatever you ask of me, I’ll do it! I’ll…I’ll confess to the Constables!”
Slapping the panel closed again, Zem retrieved his key from the door and backed out of the vault, his deathly stare locked onto Pik. With a faint groan, the ancient doors began to swing shut.
“Please, Zem! A thousand times, I’m sorry!”
“You wanted Ara’s wealth?” Zem spread his arms wide, taking in Pik’s surroundings. “You can spend the rest of your life with it.”
The doors shut with an echoing boom, and silence fell once more. With a deep, satisfied breath, Zem smiled and let the tension seep from his body. Slipping the key into its pocket, he returned to the ball and shook hands with his guests once more.
From the balcony where the evening had begun, he drank in the Nocturne glow, looking out over the city with renewed vigor. More than ever, he was proud to live in Na-Nupp – the great city where everyone was happy and healthy. Where nothing bad ever happened, and friends were true friends…to the very end.