“Zaphy,” hissed a voice. “Zaphy, Zaph, Zaph-eeeee-a…”
Zaphia would have loved to answer Ario and put an end to the pestering, but she was currently yawning her way through a briefing on being vigilant for intruders in the temple. Her days of sabotaging progress on the divination room may have been over, but at least no one had found the divination stone yet, whatever it did. After successfully sneaking into the prison to discover nothing and running home to toss freeze berries in the empty ice furnace before her parents woke up, she found all attempts at sleep impossible before her work shift that night. She would have welcomed sleep right about now, though, especially when the supervisor with the name Zaphia had forgotten again kept droning on and on about the cause and being so close to making a real difference in people’s lives.
If the difference was hurting foreign kids and Sorceresses, Zaphia guessed they were making a difference. She had learned that much from the conversation in the palace prison. The supervisor finally wrapped up his Vigilance Speech and assigned jobs for the day. Zaphia was on brush-clearing duty, so she grabbed a sack and headed outside.
When she walked past an outer pillar, she heard a not-so-subtle, “Psst!”
“Ario, seriously,” she snapped. “Do you not see that I am busy?”
“Uh huh, yeah,” he said, seriously not seeing that she was busy. “They just brought in somebody big! Well, not big, really. Kind of tall, I guess. But important is what I meant. Somebody important. A Sorceress.”
Oh no. If Iketa and Dalor had caught the Sorceress causing them so much trouble, who else was left? They had been so angry with her when she was their prisoner before. Her life might be in danger. No, her life was definitely in danger. Zaphia had to get back in the prison right now.
Except for some reason Ario was tugging her to a stop in the middle of the jungle.
“Zaphy,” asked Ario. “Why are they taking all these people? Why aren’t the Sorceresses and the Naxturae helping us?”
She had never told Ario her suspicions. He just thought they were playing a big spying game.
“I’m not sure, Ari,” she answered honestly. “I’m trying to find out.”
“The Sorceress looked hurt, Zaphy,” he said, his face screwed up in an attempt to strain for understanding. “They were dragging her. Are the Sorceresses bad, too?”
What should she say? “Ari,” she said, keeping her voice low, “I don’t think Iketa and Dalor are being totally honest with us.
His face went slack with a combination of shock and horror. Iketa had patted him on the head and given him a berry freeze shard one time, so he was completely enamored with her. “You’re not…helping the Seer, are you?”
He was a sharp one, that Ario.
Zaphia sucked in half a breath before she admitted, “I might be.” Ario’s eyes bugged out of his dark face even more. “Or I might want to, anyway. I don’t think I’m helping anybody at all yet.”
“But the Seer is bad,” insisted Ario.
She craned her head to search for eavesdroppers, but absolutely no one was paying any mind to two kids chatting.
She lowered her voice anyway. “Is she, or do we only think that because of what Iketa, Ocery, and Dalor have been telling us?”
He shook his head, trying to understand. “Aren’t they the same thing?”
“I’m really sorry, Ari,” she apologized. “I shouldn’t have dragged you into this. Especially when I wasn’t honest about what I was doing. I don’t have any answers, and this is getting really dangerous. You should go home.”
Feeling terrible about herself, she jogged to the temple. Her jungle shortcut was dark at night, but her eyes were used to the terrain, and her feet knew the way. If she veered off to a torch-lit main road, everyone would be able to see her. She was so focused on speed and staying out of sight, she had not noticed that Ario had followed her the whole way to the palace. She was possibly the worst spy of all time.
“Ario, what are you doing here?” she whispered.
“I’m helping,” he replied.
“I don’t want to get you in trouble, Ari.”
“Meh.” He shrugged his bare shoulders. “I’m always in trouble.”
That was true.
“I might find out something bad about Iketa and Dalor,” she warned. “I know they’re up to something.”
He stared up at her, his bright eyes brimming with certainty. “Zaphy, I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong, but I know you’re good, and you’ll figure it out and do the right thing, so I want to help you.”
He was firm, and she was in need of the vote of confidence and a dose of help.
“Thanks, Ari,” she said, feeling grateful. She had to admit there was no way her prisoner food trick would work twice. “I could use a distraction to get inside.”
An enormous grin split the very serious expression that had taken residence on Ario’s normally less serious face.
“I can cause a distraction!” he exclaimed, dashing into the palace whooping and hollering.
Oh no. What was he doing?
She heard him shriek in pain. She almost ran in to rescue him, but she had the presence of mind to take cover behind a column. Ario had gotten the guards to move to his aid on one side of the courtyard, behind a tall view-obscuring fountain.
“It hurts so much!” he wailed. “My ankle! My knee! It all hurrrrrrrts.”
He might have been overselling his sudden injuries, but he was commanding all the attention in the vicinity. Zaphia dashed across the courtyard to the main entrance of the palace, careening inside and out of sight. She could hear Ario shrieking at the top of his lungs until she was halfway to the holding room from yesterday. She forced herself to slow down and listen for guards, ducking behind a wall of vines when a spear-wielding guard patrolled past. With trembling legs, she pulled off her sandals, shoved them in her loose, cloth belt, and ventured back into the hallway. Was it two rights and a left, or straight, left, right? Her adrenaline was too out of control for her brain to remember, so she gave up and let her feet lead the way.
When she was close, the sound of voices carried her the rest of the way.
“You really thought you could escape?” Iketa mocked.
“I did escape,” was the response. “Shrilynda just tried to kill me a little more effectively than I had planned.”
“The break-out was a stupid idea anyway,” Dalor chimed in. “We have your mother.”
Zaphia slowed, looking for a good place to hide. She was just outside the waiting room.
“Have?” said the new prisoner. “Like you’re working for her?”
“What? Don’t play dumb.”
How was Zaphia supposed to understand this conversation when they were not even understanding each other? Her head already hurt from translating all the Terran to begin with.
“I don’t have to play anything,” the prisoner muttered. “Take me to her already if you’re so eager for a family reunion.”
“Watch the attitude,” sneered Iketa. “Without the pearl, you have no power here.”
“Pretty sure I still have the power to snap your neck, so you might want to doublecheck those ropes.”
“Open up the cell,” Dalor ordered. Zaphia imagined he was talking to the guard in front of the door to the old prisoner’s cell.
Zaphia needed to hear this conversation, but the farther inside the room they moved, the more muffled their speech. She poked her head into the hallway. The palace roof was made up of thick vines here. There was a spiral staircase at the end of the hallway, leading up to a lofty watchtower. Getting onto the roof was worth a try.
She flew up the staircase, ignoring the echo of footsteps from above on the stone steps. She needed to be more careful, she reminded herself, winding her way up until she reached a window in the tower. She launched herself up and out the small window, scrambling out and clinging to the rough stones of the tower. She pressed herself to the curved stone and closed her eyes. Something about not being able to see made her feel like no one could see her. The sounds of feet grew louder and then softer. The guard had passed by. She climbed her way down and dropped softly onto the vine roof. It gave a little under her weight, but the vines were massive and thickly intertwined. Choosing the fattest vines, her bare feet picked a path to just over the room where Iketa and Dalor were holding the newest Terran prisoners.
Since the guard had just left the watchtower, she hoped she had time before his replacement arrived. Maybe he would come back after he finished a round of patrols. She had never paid much attention to how guarding worked. Nothing had really needed guarding on Flifary Island before. Satisfied she had a little time to spy, she lowered herself to lie flat against the vines, looking for a gap under leaves the size of her head.
“What do you think you’re going to accomplish here?” Zaphia heard when she silently pushed aside the right cluster of leaves. She could just see a Terran face down below. That was the prisoner brought in yesterday. Zaphia recognized her voice. This lady had a jagged, red gash down the side of her cheek. Zaphia shuddered. Ario had been right; the woman was old, for a Terran. Their bodies seemed to age so much faster than the Flifary’s bodies did. Zaphia found Terrans fascinating. Someday—unless she was caught and left rotting in this prison for five hundred years—Zaphia would study Terrans and answer some of her questions about them.
Zaphia scrambled silently to another hole to verify that today’s prisoner was the girl Iketa had been trotting around the temple before. She found the right hole and peered down into the room. To her surprise, she was looking at someone new, somebody with jagged bright blond hair who could barely stand, despite all her bravado.
“You idiots,” the different Terran Sorceress barked. “You think hurting me is going to convince my mother to give you information? Why don’t you just untie her and let her stab me herself instead? Save us all some time.”
“I’m so tired of everyone’s games,” said Iketa, out of view. “We know Daniella was working with Arlana to blind us and hide the kids.
“Are you sure?” said the new Sorceress warily. “Because that all seems highly unlikely.”
“Exactly,” Dalor hissed. “Now you’re getting it. Arlana knew only an unlikely plan would succeed, and now she’s managed to throw everything into chaos.”
“I do like chaos,” said the new prisoner.
There was a quick motion on the fringes of what Zaphia could see through the vines. Long red hair swished across the flash of a blade. The Soceress had gotten on Iketa’s nerves, which Iketa was demonstrating by whipping out a knife and stabbing her in the shoulder. Iketa twisted the blade while the new Sorceress screwed up her face in pain. Ouch. Zaphia would have been sobbing like a new-chi.
“I don’t know,” blurted out the older prisoner. “I don’t know anything you’re asking me. I don’t remember. I don’t even know her.”
Iketa sneered. “You’re expecting me to believe you just conveniently forgot—” She cut herself off, yanking the bloody knife out of the prisoner’s arm. The prisoner slumped back against the wall. “Dalor—hallway?”
Zaphia scrambled to silently follow them.
“She wiped her memories after she hid the kids, didn’t she?” sighed Iketa.
“Aack,” Dalor exclaimed with a spitting sound. “I can test her.”
“If we find she has no memories?”
“Our interrogation is a giant waste of time,” Dalor pointed out. “What now?”
“We lock down the missing Sorceress, finish the temple, and use the divination room to give us leverage over Arlana and track Daniella’s movements up to now. As long as we have Daniella and Issabeth, we’re in no danger. What is one half-trained girl going to do? Storm the Island and break them out?”
“I hope so,” grumbled Dalor. “It would save us some time if she came here. I am getting tired of fog travel.”
“Of course, that’s assuming she’s still alive.”
Dalor nodded slowly. “I’ll set up a trace on Rosaliy at the temple, get a team to monitor for her. No more surprises.”
Finally, Zaphia had a goal. She was going to get herself on that tracking team. Well, first, she was going to get off the roof, which was a daunting goal all on its own, but after that, she was going to get herself assigned to the Sorceress tracking team.