Thursday, May 4, 2017

White Hawks: Prologue

*for name and word pronunciations, please see the Atremento Chronicles tab.
*Thank you Schuyler McConkey for the editing. Check out her lovely story snippets, reviews and thoughts on My Lady Bibliophile!
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Fourteen pairs of eyes watched him. They catalogued with their eyes each blink, every twist of his fingers, sensed the rapidity of his heartbeat across the wide and long table running the length of the room. Nico squirmed under their gaze and avoided making eye contact. Not from guilt, but anxiousness. Dragging his fingers through his neatly trimmed dark-brown hair more than once, Nico vaguely wishing he had thought to shave the stubble from his chin. This was the moment he had studied and prepared for for. Twenty-five years of dedication, of shadowing his own father and following their precise rules and regulations, seeking to meet their high standard and shaping his life into that of a Gatekeeper.
A member of the Consulate with dark hair and eyes sparkling in hidden delight leaned forward, his hands clasped before him. His even stare was still and perceptive. “Nico, why do you want to be a Gatekeeper? Tell us what it means to you.”
This was not an unexpected question. It was not the first time Nico had been asked it, and it wouldn’t be the last. They wanted to test him, to see what he was made of. How honest was he? How dedicated? How genuine? How strong of heart and mind? Knowledge meant nothing without purpose or drive.
He answered truthfully, “I love the Sidhe, and I care deeply about their safety and peace in Atremento. It is because I care about them that I understand we must remain separated from the Middle world of humans. This is not only for our protection, but theirs as well.”
A second Consulate member slid his long fingers on the table. “What do you expect to protect both humans and Sidhe from? And what benefits do we gain from this protection?”
Another simple question. Nico nodded. “Mainly two kinds of dangers. Iron and magic. Humans possess iron, which is dangerous to us, and we wield magic, which is either too frightening for them to understand or too tempting for them to handle properly. They would either annihilate us or abuse us for having it. Without separation, we could be continuously at war. There are also creatures from the High world which are dangerous to the Middle, creatures that don’t use self-restraint, including dragons and others. I refuse to let these creatures or the Sidhe become human playthings or the victims of war.”
“You appear passionate on the subject of protection,” a dark-eyed  member of the council tilted his head at me. “Do you think, having grown up as a Gatekeeper’s son, that your father’s influence was negative or positive?”
Nico looked around the room, painted in the palest shade of white-blue with stone floors. Cold, with very little decoration. His eyes skipped past the dark-haired Consulate member who’d asked what being a Gatekeeper meant to him. Nico’s father was not on the council, but he wished to be. They had asked him to wait until after Nico’s and James’s tests, and so he wondered if this question was not only to test him but also his father. Nico absent-mindedly reached up a hand to touch his hair again, but brought it down before he finished the motion. Perhaps they wondered about his father’s alliance: to them, to his mother, or to his sons? In a life or death situation, which would Reed choose?
Nico chose his words carefully. “I would answer that he influenced myself and my brother in very positive ways. He has always taught us to put others first. I won’t lie, I am sure there are small issues on which he may have influenced me that some of you may disagree with.” He swallowed and continued, “I know you respect my father, but I also know that he has a reputation for some impulsiveness. I believe I share this weakness, but please do not let me influence your decisions about my father, he’s a good man and he deserves some acknowledgement.” Nico nearly bit his tongue after that last sentence. Although he spoke calmly, his palms began to sweat and he pressed them to his knees and licked his lips. It was wasn’t right for them to question him about his father.
“Nico.” The soft but firm call to attention turned Nico’s head immediately from the dark-eyed Consulate member across from him to the Head of the Consulate, at the far end of the table. “We’re not asking about Reed. We’re asking about you. Are you our ally?”
Nico’s face flushed red in humiliation, realizing his error of pride and the weakness of family loyalty he had just exploited to them. He blinked and nodded slowly and humbly. “Yes, of course,” he answered, meaning it from his finger tips to his toes. A moment of silence passed, and he knew they conferred silently with one another, a conversation without sound but full of depth. Their lips did not move, but their eyes did. Mental shields of great skill made it impossible for Nico to determine the mood in the room, let alone their opinions on him. It was like watching someone converse from the opposite side of a glass wall. It was uncomfortable being the odd one out, and feeling blind from their emotions. They shared glances, and the Head Consulate stood at last. The others copied him, and Nico followed last.
“Nico, you show great potential. We would like to congratulate you and confirm that you indeed may move forward from your apprenticeship to the esteemed role of Gatekeeper, a loyal protector of the worlds.” The Head bent from the waist, a smile tugging at his lips.
Nico’s heart pouded in his chest and his hands trembled with elation. He gripped the back of his chair tightly. Although he had worked hard for his and prayed for years, he had never imagined what it would be like, or whether he would really make it.
The long-fingered Consulate member added, “We will be sending you to your father’s previous location, Shannon-Green Estate in the Middle world, for now. It is highly unusual for us to send a first-time Gatekeeper straight off to the Middle world, but it is location of reletively mild challenges, and you know it well. Your marks on both your practical and written tests were excellent, you seem mostly unaffected by iron, and we’re short on iron-immune Gatekeepers.  Do you think you can handle this post?”
Nico grinned. “Absolutely.”
The Consulate members lined up against the far wall, wide smiles on most of their faces. Nico moved down the row from Sidhe to Sidhe, accepting their congratulations, encouragement and advice. Twenty-five years of apprenticeship had felt like a lifetime. It was truly not so much time in the greater scale of things, but it was at least more than half of his life. It was not until he had received the last hand-shake and congratulations that it occurred to him what it meant to take over Shannon-Green from his father. He paused while the door was still open, and looked back over his shoulder, realizing a second too late that he should have kept his shields up. They were like a wall that only he could see, protecting detailed thoughts from being “heard” by the men of the Consulate. The head Consulate winked at him, an assurance that it would all work out eventually, and the door closed between them.

Nico’s parents waited for him just outside the door a few feet away. He had to plant his feet firmly not to be knocked over by Navaelin’s enthusiastic embrace. She swept her hair out of her brown eyes, a shade of bright and sparkling brown. She was the strong kind of woman, the kind that didn’t cry easily, not even joyfully, and her arms squeezed just a little too tightly.
“You did it, didn’t you? I knew you would!” Navaelin bubbled. Only her height matched his, the shape of their noses and some similarities in their thin frames.
Nico could feel her effervescent happiness, surrounding him in a cloud of warm and motherly love. She was proud of him, more than she could say.
Cenahin, Méra,” Nico thanked her while accepting another embrace from his father next. Reed and Nico were more alike in their facial features, having similar gray eyes and unruly brown hair, but Reed was an inch taller. His eyes sparked in mischievious joy.
“You’ve made us very thankful, hasn’t he, Nav?” Reed stepped back to lock hands with Navaelin, but Nico’s eyes looked past them, to James, standing several yards away with his very new wife at his side. His back was turned, broad shoulders set, tension poured from him in waves.
Cenahin Héro, I’ll be right back,” Nico promised, his smile fading. He stepped past them to approach his older brother cautiously. James turned when Nico was only halfway across the hall.
“Congratulations, you have passed.” His voice was wooden and apprehensive. Nico froze where he was, halfway between his parents and his brother.  
“Where have you been assigned to?” James’ blue eyes flashed and Nico felt small beneath his stare. He was shorter by at least a head, and although Nico called him his brother, they were nothing alike. James had paler skin and very neat, blond hair. Behind him stood Ilána, her own face an open book of ever-changing emotions. She was giddy for Nico, somber for James, worried for what it would mean for James, what it could mean for her. Her vivid blue eyes pooled with tears, but she managed to keep them inside. Ilána was not as strong as Navaelin, too easily trusting and much too sweet to be the wife of such a bitter man. Perhaps, Nico wondered, that was what made it work- he was bitter and she was endlessly forgiving.
Swallowing nervously, Nico confessed, “Shannon-Green Estate.” He shifted from foot to foot, clasping his hands behind his back and mentally preparing for James’ barrage of jealousy to spill out. Would he forgive Nico? He had to. We’re brothers.
“So Reed will likely be promoted to Council-member then.”
Nico nodded.
“And I know it’s one location they won’t consider me for.”
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Nico rolled his eyes, trying to brush it off. James was assuming the worst, which was exactly what Nico had hoped to avoid. It was unusual for anyone to take his first post in the Middle World, James was very aware of that. Yet he liked to be the martyr.
James brought his palms together and touched his fingertips to his lips. “I’m surprised you actually believe that.”
Used to his stoicism, Nico sighed and refrained from rolling his eyes again. Instead, he stuck out his hand and made up the distance between them in a few long strides. “This doesn’t change a thing for me. Brothers still?”
James dropped his hands to his side and marched past Nico, heading straight for the council room.
Ilána bit her lip. “I’m sorry.”
“There’s no need for you to apologize for him.” Nico gestured to her to join him and his parents nearer the door. Navaelin wrapped her arms around Ilána, warmth and comfort flowing from her to her daughter-and-law.
Ten minutes passed. They began to pace around each other. Twenty minutes passed. Nico sat against the wall, his Méra and Héro were once again standing with hands clasped. Ilána stood alone, biting her nails. It should be finished any minute now. The Consulate had already made their decisions by now, but apprentices were still allowed a fair, short questionaire to prove themselves one last time. Reed and Navaelin’s whispers gently echoed around them, prayers for patience and peace. The door finally opened and James stepped out, his mouth set, eyes almost as dark as the night sky.
“James?” Navaelin let go of Reed, reaching for her adopted son as Reed moved to embrace him. James pushed them back.
“Son, please talk to us.” Reed moved in front of Navaelin, protective, though it was not needed, and Navaelin held Ilána back. Wait, please wait.
James scoffed, “Son? I’m not even blood. Why do you even call me your son?”
Reed went pale. His eyes clouded over, more gray than Nico could ever remember them being. His voice cracked when he answered, “I’ve never looked at you as any less simply because you’re not flesh and blood.”
“Is that so?” James stabbed a finger at Reed, his pale face reddening with adrenaline. “I don’t believe that’s true. I think this has everything to do with blood. You promised Obsidian Valley to Nico. The Consulate you’re about to join promised Shannon-Green to Nico. Yet I am failed. Go ahead, talk with your Consulate, the one Nav’s father and Nico’s grandfather is a member of, talk to them!” James’s voice echoed in the halls around them, bouncing off the ceiling like sharp claws scraping the hollow air. He leaned close enough to Reed that their noses almost touched and hissed, “Go ahead, erase my memories.”
“James!” Ilána shrieked, breaking free from Navaelin and tugging at his hand. He shook her off as if she were a fly, and her tears broke, a salty waterfall spilling from her eyes and over her cherry-tinted cheeks. James’s footsteps beat an angry drum beat as he marched away. Navaelin bit her lip, her fingers lacing and unlacing in Reed’s. Sweat beaded Reed’s forehead, and when James was finally gone he turned to Nico and grabbed at Nico’s shoulders.
“You know what it means when you’re denied.”
Of course he did. It wasn’t a secret. To protect the Consulate’s location and identity, but also to preserve and protect the information gained over years of work and study, all denied or failed apprentices had to have their memories erased. It was not an easy procedure. Something like that took a great deal of strength and precision. Even the most skilled and strongest of Sidhe, though, could not reduce the terrible pain.
“They’re going to have to, Héro,” Nico murmured, hating how his words sounded. He was surprised how strong his voice sounded, because there was certainly little strength left in his knees.
“Would you think me insane if I went right in there now and begged them to spare him this?”
Nico’s eyes flickered to Méra, who had wrapped her arms around herself, holding her heart and tears in.
Ilána was sobbing with abandon now, begging Reed to do this, please give them anything they want, but not his memories. Nico could not look at her while she was sinking to the cold stone floor. He had to remain standing for his father, his mother, new sister-in-law.
Nico answered in their own Sidhe-tongue, “Cána.” No, he wouldn’t think his father crazy. He would not think less of him. “Because I would do it, too.”
Reed’s hands quivered when he let go of Nico, smoothing out his hair and rubbing his sweating palms down his shirt. Nico and Navaelin watched as he rushed past them to enter the Council room, wordless, pained, a father bear set out to bring his son even just a morsel of mercy.  

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