Chapter 2:

the Afflatus

Aboard the Winnow

“Please let me join your crew.”Bookmark here

Lili is on her knees, her face flat against the dusty dirt path leading to her own home. The thought of leaving this place is so violently at the forefront of her mind that it hurts to even consider what she’d end up doing with her life if these people refused her request. Bookmark here

Avett immediately pivots on his heel, his face flushed with anger. “You deliberately decided not to follow orders, you put yourself at risk for no good reason, and you would have outright died if I hadn’t been there. We’re not taking you on. Get real.”Bookmark here

This all feels mildly unfair to Lili, but she’s not sure if she wants to bring up the fact that he would’ve similarly died had she not distracted and gotten its attention. Bookmark here

“Come on, we can give her more credit than that.” Ysh’vanna grabs Lili’s arm and hoists her right up to her feet. “She totally went toe to toe with a grade B dragon for, like, ten minutes without breaking a sweat! I saw her distracting that thing for you and stuff—plus if we have her on our crew, we get that obligatory Human discount—”Bookmark here

“Ysh’vanna.” Auren glares at the smaller lizard girl, which shuts her up immediately. Bookmark here

“Discount or no, I’m not taking on dead weight as my frontline partner.” Avett doesn’t even spare a look backwards at his crew before stomping up the stairs and entering the ship. Bookmark here

Lili looks to Auren and Ysh’vanna warily. They’re her last hope out of this desolate hellhole. Bookmark here

“I mean…” Ysh’vanna shrugs. “We could take her back to the Hive. She could get a job there, maybe even do some mercenary work if any ship wants her…”Bookmark here

Wants her. Lili can’t help but flinch. “What’s the Hive?” she asks instead. Anything to stave off the crippling sensation of disapproval in her stomach.Bookmark here

Surprisingly, Auren is the one to answer her. “The Hive is a sanctuary for Humans. Though the same cannot be said for us, they will most likely offer you succour.” He’s sitting on a mound of slightly uplifted dirt and putting his hair back up. Even long after he’d used them to cast wards around her house, they still glow with an insatiable, solar light. It makes Lilith want to shiver. Bookmark here

It’s better than being stuck here, she guesses. Even though she’s spent the majority of her six years here, there’s something about the place that makes her want to leave. Maybe it had been the time Ava had used her wings against her, had threatened to crack them clean in two during a heated argument about things that hadn’t even mattered in the end. Or maybe it’s the fact that she’s dead, and that this dwelling was something she was meant to leave behind a long time ago. Bookmark here

“Thank you,” she stammers. She’s not sure how she’s going to readjust to talking with real, walking humans, but that’s a problem for another day.Bookmark here

“Of course, there does happen to be another option for you.” Auren nods towards Ysh’vanna, who straightens her back immediately. “But first, I would like you to explain how you, a Human… managed to sprint as swiftly across the field as Avett.”Bookmark here

“Why?” Lili stiffens. While he had displayed a tremendous amount of athletic ability, he hadn’t seemed… particularly special.Bookmark here

Auren continues, “Avett is a particularly well-trained Kattish, capable of running up to sixty kilometres per hour. You are not supposed to match his pace. So how did you do it?”Bookmark here

She feels like she’s being drilled into all of a sudden. “Ether manipulation. I just kinda… shove the ether into my legs. I can do it to any body part. It makes me stronger.”Bookmark here

A flash strikes across Ysh’vanna’s lime-green eyes. “No former formal training?”Bookmark here

“I mean, I’ve been here for six years.”Bookmark here

“No way.” She shakes her head. “Direct body manipulation was a third-year course at—” Bookmark here

“It is entirely possible that it just so happens to be her affinity and not the alternative.” Bookmark here

Regardless of how Lili feels, Auren looks to her again. It’s not fear nor hatred glistening in his otherworldly eyes—but wonder. Curious, childlike wonder. “I would like to extend a formal offer to invite you on to our crew, Lili. We could use a second frontliner.”Bookmark here

As the taller man fixes his eyes upon her own, Lili can’t help but feel a burst of warmth in her chest. She’s getting out of here, and she’s wanted, damn it. She jumps to her feet and shakes Auren’s hand until it’s a blur of motion against his still body. “Thank you. Thank you,” she repeats. Bookmark here

“Avett is… not going to like this one, Auren.” Ysh’vanna exhales roughly and claws a hand through her wiry, white hair. Bookmark here

Lili freezes. What are they going to do about Avett? It’s not as if he’ll change his mind about her overnight, and he’s certainly going to have to if he wants to continue working on the frontline. Bookmark here

“That is a conversation I will be having with Avett.” Auren tugs at the cords of his hairnet, securing his locks in place. “I would not concern yourself for now. We leave at six. You will have your belongings packed before then.”Bookmark here

And with that, he’s stepped through the ship’s sliding doors and disappeared into the bridge. Which leaves Lili and Ysh’vanna outside.Bookmark here

Despite herself, Lili finds that she’s fixing her focus towards a distant blue silhouette that’s most likely a mountain. “I can help you with packing, if you want,” the girl says. “I might be Draconian, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do heavy lifting.”Bookmark here

“That’s alright.” It doesn’t feel right to make her busy her with any kind of heavy lifting—if there’s one person who should be down here, it’s Avett, but he’s not about to help her out anytime soon. “I’ll be packing lightly.”Bookmark here

She walks into her house, shuts the floor, and sinks to the ground. She’s lived in this place for a good six years now. The dragons had long since destroyed the context around the area, but Lili is pretty sure that this was once someone’s glorified garden shed, judging from the tin roof and its unoiled, wooden interior. She and Ava had quickly placed stolen rugs over the flooring to get rid of the scent. The day before that had been brutal. She shuts out the memory and gets to packing everything she needs in those reusable cloth bags Ava had pillaged from a nearby supermarket years ago.Bookmark here

Not surprisingly, Lili has an easy time saying goodbye to her house of six years.Bookmark here

When she’s all done and dusted, she locks the door—pointless as it is—and stands at the entrance of the ship, her knuckles poised to rap against its metallic surface. The doors had slid open automatically for Auren and Avett, so shouldn’t they be opening for her? Or maybe they had opened because they had some sort of ID card, and in retrospect that made a lot more sense than— Bookmark here

Thunk. Lili jumps at the sound, her heart skipping a precious beat in response. The doors slide open, and then she sees Avett with his fist on a green LED light. Bookmark here

“Hopeless,” he says as he whirls and heads back inside. “Hit the light again—it’ll close it, in case you didn’t know.” Bookmark here

She makes sure to treat the button with only the utmost respect, just to spite him in silence. It flashes red, and the doors slide shut behind her.Bookmark here

The ship’s interior is—put simply—something she’s only ever had the pleasure of seeing in a comic book. It’s a structure that’s been primarily reinforced by some sort of blue metal, and she’s not quite keen on settling and calling it iron just yet. Right now, she’s in a hallway that’s just wide enough to fit two people side by side, and that’s if they’re willing to brush shoulders. It’s a good thing she’s closely trailing Avett instead of the former. Bookmark here

“Right. Behind us are the sleeping quarters, left of that is the bathroom, and to the right of that is the armoury. Up ahead’s navigation, which is also where we coincidentally have the kitchen.” Avett doesn’t stop walking until he’s up against what seems to be a block of metal, but once he knocks on it to reclaim Lili’s attention, the hollow sound that it makes gives it away. “And this is the engine room. Which is my turf. You’ll never have to find yourself here if you’ve done everything correctly, so just follow whatever Auren and I tell you to do—like the good little frontliner you are—and we’ll be good, okay?”Bookmark here

Lili just stares at him. Auren’s been ruthless with him, no doubt.Bookmark here

“Not going to say anything?” He folds his arms and raises an eyebrow. “Or are you more of the silent, seething type?”Bookmark here

She does want to say something. Her hands clench behind her. But there’s just something wiggling around at the back of her mind, telling her that this complete stranger who she’s only known for half of a day is right, that she does deserve all of these beratements. She can’t argue with that. She was a nuisance on the battlefield.Bookmark here

Her eyes squeeze shut. “Sorry. Thank you.”Bookmark here

She balls her hands further into her bags and barges right past him before he can say another word.Bookmark here

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Lili’s legs are unbearably stiff. Bookmark here

Though she loathes to admit it, yesterday’s encounter had left quite the impression on her—both physically and mentally. As she rises from her slumber, she has to suppress yet another groan. She’d moved to the armoury with nothing but her quilt in hand because she absolutely admonished the idea of being watched by—she shivers—Avett while she slept. She hadn’t bothered to move the mattress along with her, and now her back feels like it’s been bruised to hell and back. Or maybe that was also from yesterday. She’s not sure.Bookmark here

There aren’t any windows in the armoury, so the entire room’s dark. She can only hope that her body clock is on time and that it’s nine in the morning and not… nine in the evening. Bookmark here

“Oh, what’re you doing awake? It’s five in the morning.”Bookmark here

Lili deadpans as she stands in the entrance of the bathroom. Ysh’vanna is up and brushing away at her teeth. Her canines are pointed. Lili briefly makes eye contact with her before looking into the corner where a pile of dust bunnies are sitting. “I thought it was morning. But—like, a more acceptable ‘morning.’”Bookmark here

Ysh’vanna gargles her water and spits. She runs the tap—her face returns wet, the fringes of her white mane sticking her skin. “You moved to the armoury. Don’t like sleeping in communal rooms?” Her toothy grin is bone-white.Bookmark here

That’s… not quite true. Lili has slept under the same roof with Ava for all those years, so she’s used to the absolute surrendering of all defences that sleeping with another person offers. In retrospect, she hadn’t liked it one bit—but it was bearable at least. Bookmark here

She shrugs as she crosses the bathroom towards the sink. “I’m just not fond of sleeping near someone who hates my guts.” For good reason, she adds silently.Bookmark here

Ysh’vanna doesn’t leave the room. Instead, she leans against the shower’s sliding glass door. Does everything on this ship have to slide open? “He’s incredibly prejudiced against Humans. He had a bad run-in with a couple on his first day out on the field.”Bookmark here

“And now he just hates all of them,” Lili completes. Bookmark here

“Well, hate’s kind of a strong word—I wouldn’t say hate, maybe more like misguided prejudice?” Bookmark here

She looks at herself in the mirror. Her mother used to call her lucky—her eyes are more western than East Asian, having layered eyelids and all, so kids never really got to stretch out their eyelids at her. They did, however, call unwanted attention to her last name (“Why’s your last name doubled up? Isn’t that, like, a Mexican last name? Aren’t you meant to be Asian?”) and made fun of her heritage. Ava had to step in whenever she had even dared to open her lunchbox in the classroom. Bookmark here

Lili laces her fingers through her matted, jet-black hair. She rakes her hand through it until it hangs behind her back. She’s not sure what kind of environment it is in terms of race for these people. Still, it can’t be much better than what the human race had to offer before the dragons came and rained hellfire onto their world. “So he hates me,” Lili finishes. Then, sensing that the topic had gotten a little too sensitive for her liking, she asks, “You pilot the ship, right? Are there assigned roles for everyone?”Bookmark here

“Eh…” She taps her chin with the tip of her finger. “Where to start… Oh, Auren’s our backline caster. If we encounter anything while in transit, or if we need something warded, or if we just need something ethereal done, he’s our guy. He also happens to be really good at cooking, so he’s also the main chef. Don’t let Avett or me anywhere near the kitchen counter. Bookmark here

“Avett is our main frontline attacker. He’s an arms specialist—means that he prefers machinery and guns over swords and spells, though if I had to tell the truth, I’ve never actually seen him solely fight a dragon from midrange. He likes his proximity, I guess.” Ysh’vanna strides across the room, her mess of a mane swaying behind her, glittering and catching the dawn like spider silk. “He’s also our mechanic. Fixes up the ship when we’ve busted it. I don’t know how Kattish culture works, but it seems like repairing ships and slinging guns go hand in hand.”Bookmark here

Dread settles at the pit of Lili’s stomach as she squirts a spot of toothpaste onto her brush. Of course Avett is overly competent and completely deserving of his place as a mercenary aboard the Winnow. It feels less valid to want to abhor his innards now. Her fist closes around the hilt of the toothbrush.Bookmark here

Ysh’vanna doesn’t notice. “And then there’s me. Believe it or not, I’m the captain of this ship. Not Auren. When it comes right down to it, I’m the one accepting new jobs and handing in the goods—they taught us all the way back in pilot school that a good pilot is someone even a sociopath feels like they can trust.”Bookmark here

Lili spits out her water. “Where does this leave me?” Bookmark here

“Frontliner, of course.” Ysh’vanna doesn’t even hesitate when she titles her—her confidence makes Lili feel a bit better about it all. “Frontline… I saw you using ether to attack, so caster? But you were also using that sword, so… some sort of frontline melee caster flex? But I wouldn’t worry about it too much; the graders’ll decide your specialisation for you.”Bookmark here

Wait. Lili freezes. “The… graders?”Bookmark here

“Your license. Here’s mine—” She holds out a thin, rectangular piece of what appears to be metal, though like the ship, Lili’s not entirely sure exactly which metal it is. “A4, baby. That’s one of the highest grades any pilot looking to get hired could strive for.”Bookmark here

Her hands are shaky as she regards the card in front of her with apprehension. If she doesn’t wow these graders when it’s her turn to shine, she’ll likely spend the rest of her days in the Hive, and that’s not something she wants to be accepting at such a young age. Bookmark here

“Oh, don’t worry!” Ysh’vanna hastily takes back her ID. “Pilots, backliners and maintenance roles have it really easy when it comes to grading, so our rankings are way higher. It’s like at least a B1 to secure a position on a ship, but frontliners are graded more harshly so it’s about a D5 for you guys. You’ll be fine—you’re already with us, so the grade won’t really mean much since you’re technically already working under a ship.”Bookmark here

Ysh’vanna’s reassurances send a wave of apathetic calm over Lili’s heart. “What’s Avett’s rank?” she finds herself asking.Bookmark here

“About B3ish, I wanna say?” Bookmark here

Nevermind. The dread is back and pumping into her veins like a reversed stomach pump at the hospital. Maybe coming aboard had been a mistake after all. Avett is scarily proficient at his job, and he’s the one telling her to shape up and follow orders. Maybe she really doesn’t deserve to be on this ship, maybe she’s going to be their dead weight, or maybe she’ll end up killing someone as a result of just not being good enough on the field— Bookmark here

“If you’re finished with your morning routine…” Ysh’vanna touches Lili’s forearm. It’s only the lightest of touches, but it sends her careening back to earth all the same. “Wanna have breakfast now, or are you the type of person who skips that meal?”Bookmark here

“I thought you said that you didn’t cook.” She lets that tender touch guide her out of the bathroom and into the corridor.Bookmark here

“Um, couldn’t cook. Girl’s gotta eat.”Bookmark here

A shiver runs through her spine. She opens her mouth to suggest that maybe she should be making breakfast instead, but the words stay clogged in her throat like cotton balls. It just doesn’t feel right for Lili to criticise someone’s cooking on their turf.Bookmark here

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Two burnt pieces of toast later, and Lili’s ready to question just exactly how it’s possible to burn toast on an automatic toaster. Ysh’vanna, despite her earlier amicabilities, was ultimately a deeply impatient person and had decided to set the toaster’s dial to max to fully maximise the speed at which the bread cooked. Bookmark here

But food’s food. Lili has her toast with two slices of tomatoes from her garden and nothing else. The juices are seeping through, and her tomatoes are mildly warm, but it’s good considering she hadn’t eaten since yesterday’s lunch. Bookmark here

The clink of cutlery against ceramics is an inherently awkward sound. Lili gives her captain a shy glance. “If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you guys?”Bookmark here

“I’m twenty-six,” the small Draconian gir—woman, says proudly. Lili doesn’t bring up the fact that she looks at least ten years younger than her actual age. It’s probably because she’s wearing knee-length overalls over a baggy jumper. Bookmark here

She hides her reaction behind a fist and a light cough. “The others?”Bookmark here

“Auren’s… eh… probably somewhere in his forties.” Expected, but that’s not what’s bothering Lili right now.Bookmark here

Her attention falls right on Ysh’vanna. Those eyes of hers are glinting, the flecks around her slitted pupils alternating between a bright yellow and a deep forest green. What about Avett? Is what she wants to ask, but she’s going to most definitely walk into her trap if she does that.Bookmark here

Damn it. It feels like her curiosity is gonna boil over. She spits out her undying question—begrudgingly—like it’ll burn her to cinders if she tries to keep it shut tight inside of her head.Bookmark here

Her captain’s grin turns feral. “Oh, he’s the youngest out of us. Recently turned twenty. You two seem to be about the same age.”Bookmark here

Lili leans forward, her eyebrows furrowing. “I’m twenty-three.”Bookmark here

“Hey, that’s no big deal. Avett’s on this ship—he hardly cares that he’s the youngest. He’ll get anal about the way you hang your face towels all the same…” Ysh’vanna shudders. “Anything else you wanna know about our Kattish frontliner? I hear he’s quite the romantic charmer back in Therius…”Bookmark here

Lili flinches—not at her last line, that’s just gone completely over her head—but at her casual inclusion of his race. Maybe it’s mostly a human thing. Whenever she’s been referred to by her race, it’s never been for a good reason, and yet she can’t seem to detect a single droplet of malice from Ysh’vanna. Bookmark here

Well, no malice—not for Avett, anyway. Bookmark here

“Ha. Read like a book.” She tosses her silvery mane over her shoulders. “It’s just unfortunate that he absolutely hates you, but you’ll warm up to each other—soon enough anyway.” Bookmark here

“Ok, that’s not—” Lili’s starting to stammer. She looks to her shoes for guidance. “I’m not in love. I just want to know about my crewmates.”Bookmark here

“You wanted to know so much about your crewmates that you completely skipped over asking for Auren’s ranking and went straight for Avett’s?”Bookmark here

Shit. Shit! It’s true, he’s been at the forefront of her mind for the past twelve hours, but that’s only because it’s too hard for her to think about anything else. No, that wasn’t the right way to describe it—what she feels is an insatiable desire to compare; to pit her skills against Avett’s massive ego, but admitting that to Ysh’vanna to clear the muddied air… she’d rather eat another slice of burned toast. Bookmark here

Memories of Ava and her mum arise like hot bile in her throat. They’re asking her to look down upon the kids with bad grades. Maybe Avett is doing the same. Bookmark here

She can’t stand it.Bookmark here

“I’m not in love with Avett,” Lili replies, her voice aimed at the table. She can’t feel her knees. She’s been gripping them so tightly that she’s cut right through the material of her jeans with her nails and pierced the skin.Bookmark here

“That’s a damn good thing. I’d rather throw myself overboard than have a Human coming onto me.”Bookmark here

This time, it’s her race that’s been brought up—and its usage invites a severe chill to zip down her spine. Thankfully, all Avett offers her is a narrowed glare before he strides right up to the navigation panel. Bookmark here

“We’re seriously headed off land to get her a license?” His fingers drum against the table. “They assigned us to the Hive—”Bookmark here

Ysh’vanna shrugs. “I got clearance for us to move to the Afflatus – New Therius landmass for like, four days. Penalty was… eh, don’t worry about it.”Bookmark here

The look that Avett gives Lili is enough to sear iron into red-hot embers. She opens her mouth to apologise, but he’s already turned his attention back towards the panel. “Goddamn. You know she’s gonna get nothing higher than a C, right?”Bookmark here

Lili bristles. Ysh’vanna’s chair rattles against the tiled flooring as she leaps to her feet, her features narrowing for a brief second before relaxing into something looser. “Avett, that doesn’t matter.”Bookmark here

“Doesn’t matter?” He whirls—his arms are folded. “If she gets anything lower than a C3, we’re gonna be stuck doing C ranked jobs, getting C ranked rewards until she fucking—”Bookmark here

A cold hand grabs at Lili’s throat and yanks it. “Why’s that?” she breathes.Bookmark here

Now it’s her turn to be pinned to the spot by this haughty asshole. “The board won’t let us take jobs outside of our rank range. So they take the average of the crew’s ranks and that’s your highest allowed job.”Bookmark here

Clearly Ysh’vanna’s—and presumably Auren’s—A4 hadn’t been enough to balance out Avett’s unimpressive B3. She doesn’t bring that up though. Instead, she slumps back in her chair, defeated.Bookmark here

“It’s not all bad!” Ysh’vanna points out. “If the thought of ranking down’s bringing you to tears then maybe you should do something about it.”Bookmark here

Silence. A thick, low, heavy fog of silence. Avett places his hands on his hips as he surveys the landscape. Bookmark here

Then, finally, Avett decides to speak up. “Just dock the ship, Ysh’.” Bookmark here

His response hadn’t been a no. Lili’s not sure if she should be happy about her new teacher, or if she should start crying and thinking about leaving the ship again. The look that Avett offers her on his way out of the room is anything but a nice gesture.Bookmark here

In seconds, Ysh’vanna is in front of the navigation panel, her hands a blur of motion as they flurry against the buttons. Even though she’s fully concentrating on her job, she still somehow manages to find a shred of consciousness to talk to Lili. “The view’s nice—wanna take a look? Though you don’t have to; a lot of people don’t like watching me dock. Avett included.”Bookmark here

Lili walks right up to Ysh’vanna’s side. Immediately—almost jarringly so—she wishes that she hadn’t.Bookmark here

The Afflatus is a tall, gnarled spiral of steel; its wider on the bottom, and haphazardly thin near the top. But that’s not what she’s looking at right now. What she sees through the room-wide windows are the concrete and gravel remains of what used to be a city. Roads have been cracked clean in half, revealing sewage pipes and drainage systems underneath. Blackened foundations of once towering skyscrapers are all that’s left of the architectural achievements of humankind, and if she looks to the side near the ocean she can see—Bookmark here

The Sydney Opera House, with its interior fully exposed to the elements. Like someone’s forcefully deshelled a hermit crab. Bookmark here

She pushes off the table. “I’ll—I’ll be getting my things ready,” she says. Bookmark here

“Hah, my pleasure.” The ship swerves a little too suddenly, leaving the air in Lili’s stomach in freefall. She’s gotta go before she sees anything else.Bookmark here

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“First things first, we’re restocking on BluEther and ether pens. Auren gets pissy if we go below ten, so we’ll be getting him his sweet fix in bulk.”Bookmark here

Lili lets her eyes wander as she loosely trails Avett’s path. The Afflatus looks much more appealing on the inside. However, that’s only because she’s shoved away the gut-churning realisation that every wall, every building here—has been built from the broken skin and bones of Sydney city itself. Neon signage—not so bright that she can’t look straight ahead without squinting her eyes, but not dim enough to look suspicious—hang from the shops, their seductive lights beckoning to pedestrians like they’re moths. Avett leads her through one narrow street to a wider, bigger road. And by road, she truly means it; golf carts drive down marked paths, each manned by one person with a tin box seated above their wheel.Bookmark here

“Alright, pop quiz.” Avett whirls so quickly on his heel that Lili almost ends up walking nose-first into his chest. “Exactly where are we going first?”Bookmark here

“Uh—um.” Lili’s cheeks flush with shame before she can even consider her options. In truth, she hadn’t been listening at all. She’s walked right into another verbal trap, and this one isn’t even well-hidden—Avett’s ears are twitching just slightly, and his tail’s… just starting to wag itself in a black blur. She doesn’t have to be familiar with Kattish culture to know exactly what he’s thinking.Bookmark here

Avett turns again. “Ysh’vanna was onto something back there. You are fun to mess with. Maybe I’ll get something out of this after all.”Bookmark here

The truth feels even worse coming out of Avett’s mouth.Bookmark here

The two slip and weave between sweaty bodies and oily golf carts until they reach a plaza. Somehow, there’s a palm tree in the centre of all of these shops; the pot surrounding it is made out of pool tiling and concrete. Lili’s sure that Avett’s just trying his hardest to lose her in the crowd, but she’s got enough experience from tailing her mum in busy shopping departments that she could easily do this again with her head dipped between the pages of a book. Bookmark here

“Right, we’re here.” Avett chucks something at her—she catches it by the tip in both hands. It’s a credit card, and it’s got Auren Draksparrow’s name engraved into it. “Get us some BluEther and pens.”Bookmark here

“Wha—you’re trusting me with this?” She spares a glance back towards the store. The customers, the storekeeper… none of them are human. Bookmark here

“Do you really think,” Avett says, his smile twisting into a lazy smirk as he closes the distance between them in one, easy stride, “that you’ve got the balls to run off with that thing? Chop chop. You’re cutting into our training.”Bookmark here

Ignored. She pockets the card and walks towards the shop, her mind racing as it rehearses over and over exactly what she wants to say to get what she needs. As soon as she passes the open storefront, two customers turn their heads, narrow their eyes, before promptly turning back to their own shopping.Bookmark here

Okay, this is something she’s painfully familiar with. Except they’ve got horns now instead of ironed uniforms. Bookmark here

“One crate of BluEther and one crate of pens, please,” she says as she meets the shopkeeper’s eyes. Her pupils are slitted. Judging by the ear webbings, this person is a Draconian. Bookmark here

The shopkeeper doesn’t even narrow her eyes, doesn’t even show a bare hint of malice as she tosses her shock of bright-pink hair over her shoulder. “Get lost, Human. I only sell to mercenaries.”Bookmark here

There’s no sign outside that says anything like that. Or maybe there had been, and Lili missed it. Either way, the panic’s setting in fast. “You—you can’t just not sell to me,” she stammers. Her eyes are starting to float away from the action, and her back feels hot like she’s just been dunked into a vat full of steam. Bookmark here

“No license, no service.” The shopkeeper leans back against the wall. “Scram.”Bookmark here

When she meets with Avett again, he throws his hands into the air. “Oh, for fucks sake! How did you manage to come back with—” Bookmark here

At that moment, all of her pent up rages boil over. Her cheeks are a bright shade of red as she storms forward and jabs a finger into his chest. “You—set me up. They only sell to people with licenses.” She slaps Auren’s card into his body for good measure. “I’m going back to the ship.”Bookmark here

Something flashes across his eyes, but Lili just doesn’t give a crap anymore. Let them string her along, let them play stupid games with her. Bookmark here

“Wh—wait.” He turns the card over in his hands, his eyes narrowing into a scowl, his body as still as ice as he surveys the store. Bookmark here

Lili actually finds it in herself to stop in her tracks. “What?”Bookmark here

“That store shouldn’t be asking for proof of license.”Bookmark here

With Avett on the frontline and Lili stuck firmly behind him, they’re on the offensive again. Avett slams down Auren’s credit card onto the counter; the shopkeeper jumps, spares one glance at Lili, then mumbles, “I’ll be right back with your goods, sir,” before scurrying away into the back.Bookmark here

“Gotta be confident.” He hands over the card to Lili. “Straight back and eye contact. Maybe even a little bit of violence if you need the extra sweetener.”Bookmark here

The shopkeeper comes out with a full crate of shiny packets, each one labelled with the words ‘BluEther.’ Lili’s hands clench and unclench. “Violence—that’s…”Bookmark here

“There’s no law enforcement in the Afflatus.” Avett starts counting the packets in complete silence. “Go wild.”Bookmark here

Great. Avett’s fun fact hangs over her—ten tons of deadly steel, just dangling on a needle-thin string. The shopkeeper slams down yet another crate onto the counter—this one’s full of plastic syringes, each one filled with a bluish, transparent liquid. “How do these work?” Lili asks.Bookmark here

“BluEther helps with ether recovery.” The shopkeeper folds her arms, her line of sight never leaving Lili’s for a second. “Ether pens… don’t use ether pens. Leave them for your Gallian caster.”Bookmark here

She assumes that means Auren. Bookmark here

Once Avett nods and swipes the card through the transmitter, they’re headed off towards the hangar again. Lili’s holding the box of ether pens, and she can’t help but wonder exactly why she’s not allowed to use them. Then she remembers—how his hair had expanded like that from their nylon prisons, how he had smelled like the sun in all its glorious power, how he’d radiated that crushing power simply by standing there. Maybe she should leave the pens for Auren.Bookmark here

After returning to the ship and greeting Auren—he’d been seated on the dining table, eating breakfast while they were having lunch at 2PM—it comes to Lili’s attention that Avett is most definitely taking his sweet time stalling before their training session. A full hour passes before Auren puts down his knife and fork, his napkin dabbing at the edges of his mouth. Bookmark here

“You two have somewhere to be, no?” Auren finally asks between bites. “Unless Ysh’vanna was mistaken.”Bookmark here

Avett had been bickering with Ysh’vanna about canned tomatoes and their recent appearance in the ship’s bathroom cabinet only a second ago, but now she’s pushing him away from the navigation panel and out the exit. “Nope! Go on—you two enjoy yourselves now!”Bookmark here

Upon being promptly pushed down the stairs, the doors click shut behind them. Bookmark here

Avett’s tail brushes against the side of his thigh. “Mmkay. That’s annoying.”Bookmark here

“If you really don’t want to teach me…” Lili starts as she moves from one foot to the other, “then just tell me what’s on the test, and I’ll practice myself.”Bookmark here

“That’s the big fucking elephant in the room. What’s on the test this year?” He throws up his arms as he walks ahead of Lili. “The frontliner tests are so fucking arbitrary—one year they’ll be pitting every candidate against each other, the next they’ll actually have modules for you to complete. There’s nothing for you to prepare for.”Bookmark here

Not the first time she’s heard of terribly designed tests. “But surely there’s at least some semblance of a pattern, something common between all of the years.”Bookmark here

“I have no damn idea. I stopped keeping track when they started including written sections.”Bookmark here

Lili’s teeth clench into a grimace. Just what she needs—a shitty, completely arbitrary and unfair test that’ll determine whether she’ll be sniffing around for spare jobs in the absolute dregs of the Hive or if she’ll be actually living. “So… just be prepared for anything?”Bookmark here

“Pretty much. Ugh. Just know that the entire time you’re taking the test, they’ll be watching you. Like a hawk. Everything you do—graded and noted down. ”Bookmark here

The imagery doesn’t sit well with Lili. “So what now?”Bookmark here

“Now?” Avett stops at the hangar’s gate, his tail swishing against the wall like he’s a dog seeing a stick for the first time. “You drink, princess?”Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.