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Copyright © 2017 Delia Strange and Linda Conlon

Cover and internal design © 2017 1231 Publishing


Paperback ISBN: 978-0-9944614-3-8

Digital ISBN: 978-0-9925201-6-8


All rights reserved.


No part of this book may be reproduced in any form—with the exception of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without written permission from the publisher, 1231 Publishing.


The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and unintentional.


1231 Publishing, PO Box 77, Kallangur QLD 4503, Australia

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Many thanks to the writers who attend the North Lakes Writers’ Group. Without other writers to discuss our work, the adventure in writing this project would be a much lonelier one. Also, many thanks to our constant helpers, the beta readers who follow Daeson, Synjan and Hawke as they travel through the worlds. We appreciate that you pull us up over the smallest detail of our final draft. The insight you provide us is priceless. Much thanks to David Woodward, David Strange, Nicole Hary, Sue Strathdee, Kylie Crase, Fiona Moran and Jodie Lane.


For David, Darren, Jodi, Caleb and Aylish


For Jodie

TABLE OF CONTENTS

The Story So Far

1. The Round Of Pillars

2. The High Palace

3. White Cell

4. Guest Of Honour

5. Controlled Landing

6. The Three Navigators

7. Scene Not Unseen

8. High And Mighty

9. In The Belly Of The Beast

10. Out Of Control

11. An Unexpected Reality

12. Pretences And Propositions

13. Withholding Trust

14. Arrival In Na’ala

15. The London Portal

16. Uncontrolled Lust

17. Roman’s Plea

18. Losses And Gains

19. Controlled Descent

20. Portal Bound

21. Controlling Destiny

22. Conscious Bias

23. Self-Defeating Prophecy

The Story So Far

DAESON ACCIDENTALLY LEFT his homeworld of Kharltae by Wandering into the cut-throat world of Trent. He was taken in by Omerri, who seduced and manipulated him for his truth-telling and Healing abilities. Omerri’s companion in crime, Ellis, already had a Wanderer of his own—a Navigator named Synjan who he kept under his control, sending her on life-risking missions to advance himself.

Synjan and Daeson were kept apart for two years but finally met when Synjan was shot and brought to Daeson for a life-saving revival. Soon after, Daeson discovered that his relationship with Omerri was based on deception. He left the city and Omerri begged Synjan to bring him back.

Instead, Synjan took him to the Portal and bid him farewell. On a whim she grabbed his hand, and they entered the world of J’Bdyamn together. They stayed with the gentle Mukake peoples, who helped them survive in the tropical environment. While Daeson and Synjan learnt how to adapt, they also learnt about one another. During their stay, hostility was brewing with a neighbouring tribe, and when the Mukake went to war, Daeson and Synjan escaped for the Portal.

Unbeknownst to them, Ellis chose to pursue them, both personally and through his contacts—using an Authority Hunter, Hawke Donovan, to find them. Hawke had only just arrived home to his long-time girlfriend Brita but left her to fulfil the favour.

Hawke departed for Femme and ingratiated himself with the Authority Spies before being sent on a mission to penetrate the female-dominated civilisation. He was forced to remain with his contact, the Wanderer Clairvoyant Jinwa Woy, who made predictions about his success but ultimately abandoned him to the Femme Enforcers when they arrived to arrest them both.

With Ellis chasing after them through the Wanderer Portals and Hawke using all of the Authority resources available to him, Synjan and Daeson will have to be clever to stay ahead of their pursuers.

Chapter One

The Round of Pillars

Before his eyelids fluttered open, before he was dazzled by a sun that warmed his skin, Daeson was reminded of his first two Wanders. He heard the chirping songbirds of Gredann’s city garden and smelled the perfume of J’Bdyamn’s jungle. Along with scent and sound came the peace of using the Portal.

He couldn’t trust it. Wandering was dangerous, even discounting the threat of Authorities. The Portal was a seduction of worlds awaiting discovery, a promise of a better life. It could easily become an obsession; chasing a fantasy instead of living the reality.

Reality was the cool and gritty surface that his cheek rested upon.

Daeson opened his eyes and sat up, awkwardly extracting his arms from his backpack. Beside him, Synjan lay on her side, curled and peaceful.

They were in the middle of a circular concrete slab. Lines were etched into it, forming an intricate pattern he couldn’t make out whilst sitting in it. The boldest lines travelled from the centre and ended at the columns that surrounded them. Daeson blinked at them.

The columns were tall—roughly twice his height. They were transparent, made from glass tinted different colours. There were twelve in all, positioned an exact distance apart. Inside each of them was a floating statue—a peculiar choice of artwork. Daeson wondered if the columns lit up to make a rainbow at night. During festivals in Gredann, he’d been impressed by the firebarrel flowers that lit up the night sky in pretty patterns—he’d watched them through a window, listening to the booms that followed each display.

Daeson shook off the last of the Portal’s influence and stood, wiping his hands on the seat of his shorts as he looked around. The pattern etched into the ground was a many-pointed star. Beyond the paved disc, manicured grass stretched as far as he could see. Clusters of pink and orange trees lined a snaking path to a distant white building. It looked like several towers of giant toilet rolls stacked together.

Movement in the pillar closest to him captured his attention. Bubbles had disturbed the statue of the woman within, causing it to slowly spin around. He was curious about what painted face it had. Goosebumps prickled his skin when he saw the statue’s open eyes. They were too realistic to be fake. He was looking at a corpse. What kind of world embalmed their dead in pillars of coloured liquid?

Synjan moved to his side, facing the woman in the turquoise pillar.

“Do you think this is a cemetery?” he asked. She couldn’t see the patterns of those whose lives were extinguished, but she might know the reason behind the strange display.

“They’re not dead. There’s also another person below each of them, in the ground.”

“How can she not be dead?” Daeson whispered, staring at the open-eyed woman now slowly turning her back. She didn’t look like she was holding her breath.

“I don’t know. Her pattern is the same as deep sleep. The ones below us are all male.” Synjan briefly touched his arm, getting his full attention. “The men are beneath the women. We’re obviously on Femme.”

She sounded excited to know where they were but her choice of words confused him. Why was it obvious that they were on Femme because ‘the men were beneath the women’? Synjan was saying something about many solid patterns, but he wasn’t listening. On the previous world of J’Bdyamn, she’d described Femme as a slave world and said he wouldn’t like it. He’d envisioned the mistreatment of people, of the rich controlling the poor, of allowing others to go hungry while food was plentiful and of an imbalanced society. He’d thought slavery was about being indebted. Had he misinterpreted? Something heavy formed in the pit of his stomach as he unfolded the meaning of ‘men beneath the women’.

“Are all men slaves here?”

He startled her out of mapping—he felt her presence draw back sharply. She gave him a look that sat awkwardly upon her face—a cross between distaste and sheepishness.

“To the women. Yeah.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means women are in charge. I guess I should pretend I own you?”

He felt a spike of anger surge through him, ambushed by her deception. Had Synjan purposefully kept that information to herself? Had she believed he might have chosen not to Wander if he knew what was in store for him?

“That detail would’ve been nice to know before we landed,” Daeson growled.

“I’m sorry, I should’ve realised.”

She sounded genuinely apologetic, and the truth of her statements quelled a portion of his anger. He couldn’t let it all go. He was unprepared and it was her fault.

“At least we know where we are. What should we do now?” he asked through stiff lips.

Synjan frowned up at him, taking a breath and opening her mouth before she closed it and glanced over her shoulder. “Two women are coming.”

He turned and watched their approach. They wore matching ankle-length dresses with wispy pink and purple ribbons that flowed behind them as they walked. They both also wore a band of blue-tinged glass wrapped around their eyes. Daeson was relieved to see nothing in their hands and, as they got closer, he noticed they were smiling.

Synjan stepped forward to put herself in front of him like she had in J’Bdyamn. No doubt she had the absurd notion she was protecting him. She was better qualified, but everything in him hated the idea. The feeling only intensified when he realised that it was his place now. He was supposed to belong to her.

Fighting a torrent of emotions down, Daeson resisted the urge to step up to Synjan’s side. The women stopped a short distance away and held up their empty hands in a gesture that he accepted as peaceful. One of them was senior to the other—she had streaks of silver in her hair and carried herself importantly. She said something in a language Daeson didn’t know and then translated.

“Welcome to Demkoi. Do you speak Authoritan?”

“Yes,” Daeson said.

“Demkoi?” Synjan asked, alarmed.

“You might know our world as Femme. That is the Authority name for it,” the woman answered. “My name is Chien and my colleague here is Lydette.” Chien gestured at the younger woman, whose smile broadened.

There was a natural pause for them to respond and Daeson took grim satisfaction in introducing them. “I’m Daeson. This is Synjan.”

“You will follow us, please,” Chien said, not acknowledging the fact that he’d spoken.

“Why?” Daeson demanded, unwilling to blindly follow anybody. Synjan had insisted that he shouldn’t ignore his talent for truth. Since he’d been blinded by assumptions, he would have to practise using his talent proactively and directly.

The younger woman—Lydette—looked at Daeson with wide eyes. Chien answered his question, addressing Synjan.

“We wish to take you to the waiting area and replenish your supplies.”

Synjan glanced at him for verification. He nodded. It wasn’t a lie.

“Okay,” she agreed.

Daeson was disheartened to enter yet another world where Synjan would be accepted while he was merely tolerated.

Synjan picked up her pack and shouldered it as both women gave Daeson disapproving stares. Perhaps he was supposed to hold everything? Too bad. He was gratified by their displeasure and ignored the glares.

“We will place you in separate waiting rooms,” Lydette told Synjan.

“No, we’ll share a room. Thank you,” she insisted.

The women bowed compliantly and ushered them down the path that led to the toilet-roll building. He wanted to thank Synjan, but with her walking ahead of him, he lost the impetus. Instead, he admired the strange hues of the trees and listened to an intriguing mechanical hum coming from beyond their destination. He didn’t know what it was and figured he would have to see it to make sense of it. As the building loomed closer, Daeson could see it was built from tall white panels that slotted together to give a circular impression at a distance, but it wasn’t actually round.

He wondered what kind of room the women would have put him in if Synjan hadn’t said she would share. Would it have had bars? Were men kept in cages? Would he have to wear a collar and leash? He knew nothing about this world and there were no men around for him to observe.

“It’s pretty here,” Synjan said as his strides brought him close to her.

“Do you mean for a slave world?”

She blinked at him. “You’re mad I didn’t warn you.”

He stifled a biting reply. He was upset, she knew he was upset and why, so there was no point taking it further.

They arrived at a white door. It was framed neatly in the building and would have gone unnoticed, except for the path that led directly to it. Daeson thought it would act like an ordinary door, requiring a push to open. Instead, it slid sideways into the wall. It reminded him of the fancy glass doors that belonged to the shops Omerri liked to frequent. She’d taken him along on her shopping trips until he’d eventually grown bored with complimenting her on each outfit she tried on.

They stepped inside a beige corridor salted with more white doors. These doors were framed differently and didn’t slide open until Chien approached one and moved her hand in front of it. Apparently, these doors only opened for people who waved hello.

When they entered, Daeson wasn’t impressed with the room even though its size was generous and its ceilings high. It was too stark, and without colour or character. Three doors lined the right-hand wall, and shallow pieces of furniture dotted the room. The most interesting item was a rotating abstract sculpture that water spouted from. He would’ve thought it a fountain and merely for decoration, but there were four drinking glasses set on a flat platform at the top.

“Is that for drinking from?” Daeson asked, pointing at the water feature.

Once again, Lydette boggled at him. Her surprise annoyed him. Even though this was a world with male slaves, she should understand that he wasn’t one of them, and it was ridiculous for her to be shocked by his behaviour. It wasn’t any better when Chien answered his question—once again to Synjan.

“The water fountain is for drinking. This is the main room. The door here,” she gestured to the first door in the side wall, “leads to a kitchenette and eating area. All of the supplies you find within are yours to use or take. Here we have your bedroom.” Chien strode to the next door and waved hello. Through the open doorway, Daeson could see a large bed without sheets. “We expect your diplomat to arrive tomorrow.”

“Our diplomat? What’s that for?” Synjan asked.

Lydette interjected with imperfect Authoritan. “She come to ask, you stay or you go.”

There was a deep frown on Chien’s face before a tight smile took over. “I beg your pardon. The purpose of your diplomat is to ascertain your wishes. To see if we may fulfil them.”

Daeson wasn’t comfortable with Chien’s explanation as there was a niggle of untruth within. Lydette’s declaration had been sincere, but she was unable to communicate subtleties.

“Synjan,” he said quietly, wanting to talk to her before she agreed to anything. It was strange to be offered things like food and supplies without requesting monetary payment in return. These women wanted something from them, and he found it unsettling.

His internal suspicion was reflected in Synjan’s face. “We’ve just arrived. How do we know what our wishes are going to be?” she queried.

“You will be presented with the workings of our world and the role you would choose for yourself within it. The diplomat will have more information when she arrives.”

“So I would choose to be a slave?” Daeson challenged. The answers sounded prepared and vague. He didn’t like the direction of this conversation but felt like he didn’t have permission to voice his concerns. Synjan was the only thing between him and imprisonment.

Spots of pink flared on Chien’s cheeks as she glared at him. In contrast, the other woman, Lydette, looked everywhere except at him.

Synjan laughed, drawing everyone’s attention. The greeters looked dismayed by her reaction. Even though Daeson was confused, a spiteful part was pleased that Synjan had upset them somehow.

“As long we get to choose,” Synjan said, giving him a pointed look. He was surprised by her statement. How could she believe they would be allowed to choose anything? He hadn’t told her they’d lied but even without his talent, he’d expected her to be more suspicious. He was grateful for her desire to continue Wandering, for otherwise she might become enchanted by a world where women ruled over men. It would certainly be a safe place for her to live.

Chien pointed stiffly towards the third door at the far end of the room. “Behind that door is your bathroom, where you may shower and ready yourself for your distinguished visitor.”

“Ready ourselves?” Synjan asked, her tone wary.

“There are clothes for each of you in the bedroom closets. Long dresses for the women, short for the men,” Chien explained. “You will not be permitted to travel through our world in non-traditional wear. It would declare you to be… Wanderers.”

Daeson had been about to question their intention to give him a short dress but the way she said the last word caught his attention. It had been strangely breathy. He got the impression that Wanderers were held in high regard, yet they’d disregarded him and his opinion at every opportunity. It made no sense.

A moment of group contemplation was broken when Lydette leant over to quietly say something to her superior. A furtive response came and they both stared at Daeson.

“Well, that’s rude,” Synjan declared.

“Apologies,” Chien said, her tone unapologetic. “We were trying to decide what talent your partner has. We are having difficulty reading him. Is he a Shielder?”

“Reading him? You’re Intuits, I gather?” Synjan demanded, her Dockside accent intensifying. Daeson had only heard her sound like that when her emotions were riled. He was curious that another Intuit would be able to lie—weren’t they all forced to speak the truth?

“We are Intuits, yes. We know you’re a Navigator,” Chien murmured deferentially. “But we cannot read Daeson correctly. There are contradictory thoughts—is he a Shielder, an Intuit or a… Healer?”

Again, there was that strange reverential tone. His being a Healer must be a good thing. Perhaps they would stop mistreating him if he had an ability they liked. Lydette spoke to her peer in their language, prompting another indecipherable burst of discussion. After a few exchanges they had the grace to notice they were being watched and stopped.

“Tell us what you are,” Chien prompted with an encouraging smile. He shook his head, denying them the information they sought. He considered they might punish him somehow and his heart beat faster at the thought. Instead, Chien tipped her head. “We hope you enjoy your stay.”

The two women left the room and Daeson watched the door panel slide into place. Synjan approached the door and inspected it before waving her hands around like Chien. When nothing happened, she placed her hands flat on the door and tried to force it open.

“Did they lock us in?” Daeson asked.

“Uh huh.”

“They don’t want us exploring. They want to control what we see.” He thought he was insightful about the kind of world they’d landed in, but Synjan didn’t seem bothered.

“Yeah, but there’s a shower so who cares?”

Daeson blinked. He watched as she dumped her bag against the wall and began stripping while heading for the bathroom. It was so absurd, so unmindful of their circumstances that it caused him to laugh. If they were locked in a room that held luxuries within, why not make the most of it? His laugh mirrored the one she’d voiced before—it wasn’t buoyant in his chest but it made him feel a little better.

“I guess you’re showering first,” he said, relishing the idea of hot water stripping away the dirt and salt left on him from the previous world.

“You can join me if you like.”

He watched as Synjan entered the bathroom, his expression neutral though inside he was reeling. The door remained open and he debated whether or not to take her up on her offer. He placed his backpack beside hers and perched on the couch. Several times he glanced at the door and imagined what it would be like to be with her. He’d certainly noticed her body. She had a familiar shape, if a little too muscular. Wrapping himself around her would be like being with someone from home—except she was his travelling partner. If they didn’t work out as a couple, he risked losing more than just a potential girlfriend. When he finally decided the risk might be worth it, so much time had passed that it didn’t seem right for him to join her.


* * * * *


Synjan exited the bathroom wrapped in a shimmery robe. Her skin glowing, her smile dazzling and her hair inexplicably dry, rolling over her shoulders and down her back in golden waves.

“You were noisy,” Daeson said, filling in the silence. Her squeals had made him feel like his joining her was unnecessary. She smiled broadly at him.

“The buttons don’t stick out like regular buttons, but you should press all of them. Especially the blue one.” she said with glassy eyes before disappearing into the bedroom.

With trepidation, Daeson entered the bathroom and closed the door. The shower looked similar to the kind he’d used in Gredann city, but there was no handle to move left or right for hot and cold. How was he supposed to set the temperature?

Instead of a showerhead, small holes filled the roof and three walls. With some experimenting, he managed to get a warm spray trickling out of the shower roof. He found the blue button and once he pressed it, he was assaulted by pulsing jets of water streaming out of the walls. The spray hit his face and he cried out, squeezing his eyes shut and stabbing where he thought the blue button was. He was blasted by icy water and shrieked, flattening himself against the shower wall, out of the way. The next button he hit was ‘off’.

The shower must have been pre-programmed to blow warm air once the water stopped. He liked the ease of it but the water evaporating off his skin made him feel itchy and uncomfortable, though it explained how Synjan’s hair had been dry.

He used the second shimmery robe to leave the bathroom. Synjan wasn’t in the lounge and he looked for her in the bedroom. She wasn’t in there either so he figured she must have dressed and was investigating the kitchen.

By luck, he found his wardrobe first. He could tell because it held nothing but green or blue short dresses. They varied only in size—and some looked big enough to suit his frame. After putting a blue one on, he found the outfit comfortable in spite of his misgivings. When he came out of the bedroom, Synjan was at the drinking fountain. She’d selected a lovely lavender floor-length gown that deepened to a rich purple at the hem. Her tanned arms and shoulders contrasted the lightness of her hair, her curved body accentuated by the garment.

She was breathtaking, standing beside the water statue fountain and filling her cup from its spout. She was focussed on her task for a brief moment, one in which his breath was stolen. Looking at her dressed so nicely made him regretful that he’d lost a natural opportunity to have something more intimate with her. But deeper inside he knew his choice to keep their relationship as travel partners was best. They were too different. They wanted separate things. That didn’t mean he desired her any less.

“You look… nice,” he said, struggling for the right compliment. Inwardly he cringed at his own poor attempt, apologies and explanations dancing on his lips about not joining her in the shower. When Synjan looked at him fully, her expression changed from neutral to a pinched smile. It was a reaction to what he was wearing, no doubt. He felt inept and ridiculous while she was stunning. To her credit, she didn’t tease him about his clothes.

“Thank you, so do you,” she said. There was an expectant pause, made awkward by the knowledge of an unshared intimacy. To her, it was a rejection he hadn’t meant to make. To him, it was the misgivings about the future of their relationship. On top of that, they were on a world where they couldn’t be equals.

“I think this dress makes me look taller,” Synjan announced, drawing herself up to her full, unimpressive height. She swished the skirt for dramatic effect and looked pointedly at Daeson, waiting for his agreement. He smiled, unable to comment in a way that would please her but grateful she’d lightened the mood again. She snorted and waved her hand dismissively. “You’re no good for my ego.”

He grinned. “You don’t appear to be suffering.”

She made a rude noise but her eyes danced. “I am starving, though,” she continued and turned quickly so her dress flared once more. Daeson followed her into the kitchen. They made themselves sandwiches using ingredients they recognised before replenishing food supplies—mostly bottles of water and grain bars—into their packs.

When the entry door hummed open, they looked at one another and took their gear into the central area to see who had entered. Daeson had expected one of the two women who’d greeted them but it was someone different instead. A statuesque blonde woman carrying a small golden bag and wearing a multi-hued gown entered. As she moved, the fabric of her dress changed between yellow, pink and orange. Daeson was enchanted by the magic of it. Synjan began talking but was cut off.

“Are you our—“

“My name is Rinchuku Nama. You may address me as Diplomat Nama.”

Daeson was surprised that when Nama spoke, she looked at him as well as Synjan. Nama glanced from the backpacks in their hands to each of their faces. Daeson thought her gaze lingered on him and he caught a tiny shift in her expression but he couldn’t identify its intent.

“May I refer to you as Synjan and Daeson?” she asked.

Daeson figured that the Diplomat had spoken to the two women who’d greeted them to find out their names, but Synjan had a different idea.

“An Intuit,” Synjan guessed, sounding unhappy.

“Yes, thank you,” Nama replied, as though Synjan had spoken well of her. “You are a Navigator and what is Daeson?”

At first he was disappointed to once again be relegated to the status of ‘too-unimportant-to-talk-to’ but it was soon revealed why the Intuit was addressing Synjan.

“A Healer!” Nama looked pleased with the information she’d plucked out of Synjan’s head. He remembered that the two greeters said he’d been hard to read and they’d misconstrued him as a Shielder—that would’ve been a handy talent to have. “You have an impressive natural block,” Nama complimented him.

“Thank you,” he replied, surprised to be spoken to. “We were told you would be coming tomorrow.”

“Plans changed,” Nama said with a tight smile. In the brief pause that followed, he took a breath to ask why the plans had changed when the diplomat got in first.

“I am here to demonstrate the use of the specs you will wear for the duration of your stay,” Nama said to Synjan, then inclined her head at Daeson. “Men are not allowed to wear them. It would look out of place.” She unlatched her bag and pulled out two pairs of wraparound glasses. One was tinged blue, the other was pink. She held the pink ones out to Synjan and then slid the blue pair upon her face.

Daeson dropped his bag and moved closer to Synjan, ducking so he could look through her glasses as she put them on. He saw a small picture display on the lens with the word ‘Welcome’ across it, then flashes of words moved across the lenses too quickly and tiny for him to read.

“I have put them on the slowest setting, so they do not distract you as we move through this world. If you look at something for long enough, you will be told what it is.”

“I’m getting information about you,” Synjan told Nama. Daeson thought she sounded impressed. He wasn’t surprised—he felt the same way and he wasn’t even wearing them. He didn’t like being left out but at the same time he was relieved that he didn’t have to wear them. He was a slow reader, only having learnt how to recently. He wasn’t well-practised anymore.

“Are there any books here?”

“None that are accessible to men.” Nama’s tone sounded apologetic but Daeson noticed that she wasn’t saying sorry.

“So men aren’t educated here?” he asked.

“Of course they are, in order to be useful for their mistresses. Daeson, since you are a Healer Wanderer, you will enjoy great privileges living on this world. You have no need for concern.”

He was surprised by her candour but her statement nagged at him. Something about it had felt wrong. Synjan picked up on it as well and identified it with a comment.

“If we choose to stay,” she repeated flatly.

“Of course, should you choose to stay,” Nama repeated. “Come. Bring your belongings and we will travel in my vehicle to your destination.”

How does she even know what our destination is? Daeson thought. An amused glance from Nama had him believing that ‘natural block’ or not, she’d heard his thought.


* * * * *


Nama’s car was a peculiar stretched oval shape, windowed and roofed with dark mirrored glass. When Daeson piled in after Synjan, he looked up at the sky and then around. It was like nothing was between him and the outside, except there were no fresh-air smells or sensation of wind. The hum of the engine was something he felt rather than heard and Nama drove holding two stick-handles that she operated independently.

Once they were out of the tree-lined avenue and onto the streets proper, Daeson stared at the strange beauty of it all. The pink and orange trees he’d first seen upon landing on this world were tame in comparison to the multi-hued plants they passed.

The few cars around them were sleekly designed; oval or wedge-shaped. They drove under thin columns that held narrow bridges for a different vehicle to drive on — sleek, long and white. He glanced at Synjan but her gaze was glued to the window on her side and he could see a line of text run along the specs she wore. He stared at her for long enough that she turned to look at him. All of the pictures and text that he knew was displaying on her specs went invisible. He wondered what the specs said about him.

“This world is so clean,” she exclaimed, then turned back to see more of it. Daeson looked out of his own window and saw the boundary of a city. Where before there had been a few oddly shaped buildings, now were clusters of grand structures, both plain looking and fluidly designed. There were many cars—though none as sleek as the car he was in. There were many more pedestrians—not just women, but men too. All of them wore dresses, though the men seemed to only wear knee length while the women had a number of different lengths and designs.

“The men aren’t in cages or on leashes,” Daeson said.

“Why did you think they would be?” Nama asked through a smile.

“Because they’re slaves,” Daeson replied, feeling silly for his assumption.

“Is that what you did with slaves on your world?”

Daeson was offended. “No, I come from a world without slavery.”

“Every world has slaves, whether legal or not,” Nama said gently, like her words were in danger of hurting his feelings. He wanted to argue but her words were a truth that he wasn’t too naive to deny. He was reminded of tales about people being traded and sold in the more dangerous parts of Kharltae… in cities he’d never had the chance to travel to. The bartender at the Queen—Misu—had described how he’d escaped a smuggler intending on trading him into slavery. Daeson considered the Techatachenti were likely to enslave some of the women and children from the Mukake.

It was too horrible to continue thinking about. “Why do so many of these men look happy?” he asked.

“Because they have a good, sheltered life as a slave. It is better than a hard, uncertain future as a free person.”

Daeson disagreed but Nama believed what she was saying. He looked at Synjan and their eyes locked. By the press of Synjan’s lips, he could tell she was holding back on a comment. While they were trapped in Nama’s car and headed for a place they didn’t know, on a world they had no understanding of, it was prudent not to argue.

Nama laughed, startling him.

“I know both of you dislike my words. It does not matter. You can choose whether you stay or leave. I do not care.”

But the last statement she made was a lie. She did care, and Daeson had no idea why.

CHAPTER TWO

The High Palace

Synjan’s first impression of The High Palace was that of a graceful lady arranged upon a blanket of verdant finery. As their vehicle rolled up the circular driveway, she realised the building was constructed in two sections. The front was a wide and gently curved single storey that grew out of the grass on one side, rose up into a broad arch and then disappeared into the grass again on the other. The sun was high, riding its midpoint, and glinted off the textured panels of the silvery walls. The gardens surrounding the palace were poetry in foliage, complementing the entrance with a myriad of colours.

The second section rose to an inscrutable height. It was a tapering tower with many balconies, protrusions, and niches that appeared to be moving when she wasn’t looking directly at it. Synjan guessed it had a dozen floors but the windows weren’t positioned in a manner that helped her define storeys and her specs only offered the label ‘High Palace, Ning’.

Their vehicle stopped at the loop of road closest to the palace entrance. Diplomat Nama turned and smiled at Synjan.

“Please, exit first,” she invited, sparing Daeson a sympathetic look.

Synjan moved to obey, instinctively reaching for her backpack but their escort made a noise that gave her pause.

“Let Daeson carry your belongings,” she advised.

Synjan sighed and got out without her gear. Seriously, would every world aim to separate her from her stuff? She smoothed her lavender gown and readjusted her specs, watching as Daeson shouldered both backpacks, looking dignified in the process. Synjan admired his broad shoulders almost as much as she respected his composure in the circumstances—she could tell he didn’t enjoy acting the role of a slave. It left an itchy sensation beneath her skin also. She walked beside him as they followed their escort towards the breathtaking entryway.

“I’m sorry,” Synjan apologised from the corner of her mouth.

Daeson smiled at her but it wasn’t reflected in his eyes.

They passed two square-jawed, heavily-muscled males, each guarding a side of the wide doorway. The men didn’t even glance their way. Synjan frowned at their lack of attention. Their uniforms of white dresses and golden sandals included gold weapons hanging from their belts but they looked unwieldy to her trained eyes. These men seemed decorative rather than purposeful and as they entered the carpeted foyer, Synjan’s suspicion was confirmed.

Two women approached from their right, materialising from behind a huge, shimmering tapestry that was hanging nearby. They wore economical silver dresses and bore objects at their hips that looked distinctly like guns, though bulbous by design. They also moved with a precision that advertised their physical prowess. These were the Palace guards. Their appraisal of the visitors was sharp and though they exchanged words of greeting in their language with the diplomat, their gazes lingered on Synjan.

“Sister, be greeted,” the ash-blonde said after her conversation with Nama concluded, stepping forward.

Synjan looked up—and up—into her unusually-coloured violet eyes. She was secretly pleased that she didn’t take a step back, despite feeling like an insect about to be crushed. The woman was taller than Daeson! It was like being approached by the Mukake cliff face in human form.

“Be welcome,” the giantess added, inclining her head to Synjan’s murmured response of thanks before turning to frown at her colleague.

“The High Palace is a sanctuary,” the other said, her brown eyes roaming quickly over Synjan before resting on her face. She had a warmer voice, though Synjan doubted she would be obliging just because she knew how to speak Authoritan fluently. “Our most gracious and magnificent benefactor, High Priestess Sorcha, blessed-be-her-name, resides here. To protect her and maintain the tranquillity of this oasis, all visitors are required to surrender their weapons.”

Now Synjan did step back. “My weapons?” she frowned, looking between the two of them. With Daeson carrying her pack, she had nothing to hold and her fists clenched at her sides. The guards didn’t miss the action. “How do you know I have any?”

“You were scanned. We will hold them only for the duration of your stay,” Brown-eyes assured her. “They shall be returned to you as you leave.”

Instinctively, Synjan looked at Daeson, marginally relieved by his brief nod that confirmed the guards were telling the truth. That didn’t mean she had to like it.

“You’ll keep them safe?” she demanded.

“They will be locked up, it will be fine,” Nama concurred. “You will have to hand them over as men are not allowed to handle weapons,” she added, glancing at Daeson before giving Synjan a pointed look that was unnecessary.

With a sigh, Synjan surrendered the gun from her bra first, then gestured for Daeson to put her backpack down. She knelt and pulled out the clothing atop her firearms, flinging a significant amount of sand onto the plush carpet in the process. The scent of the last world also wafted around her, tickling her nose and causing her to sneeze. The specs flew off her face and everybody watched them land a short distance away.

Nama scrambled to collect and inspect them. “No harm done,” she assured as she returned them to Synjan, who took them humbly. She put them on the carpet beside her and pulled out more clothes and supplies.

The amount of sand surprised her as she’d been careful when packing everything away. By the time she got to her weapons at the bottom, there was a white ring of grains outlining her position on the floor. She should’ve been embarrassed that she’d brought half of J’Bdyamn’s islands with her, despoiling the High Priestess’ sanctuary… but she wasn’t.

Silently, she ejected the magazines of her larger guns, assured herself the chambers were empty and the safeties were on, then held both of them towards the nearest guard. Woman-mountain took them without comment, brazenly leaning over to peer into the depths of Synjan’s pack to be sure everything had been surrendered. She spoke to her colleague in their strange, blurred language and Brown-eyes responded.

“Your knife and ammunition also,” she said.

Synjan scoffed. “What good are bullets without guns? It’s not like I can fire them using my all-powerful mind or anything.”

“Their chemical composition is potentially hazardous. All weapons are to be surrendered.”

Synjan saw the futility of arguing and contented herself with sighing heavily and muttering about how she should probably surrender herself. She was silent by the time she stood and held out her precariously-balanced offering of sheathed hunting knife and three boxes of shells.

“Thank you for your cooperation,” the giantess recited as she engulfed the proffered objects in her huge hands. She apparently had a few Authority phrases memorised.

Smoothing her expression so as not to sneer at their smiles, Synjan nodded and hastily repacked her clothes. She couldn’t help mapping the guards as they walked away with all her material defences, feeling vulnerable in their wake. For a world bent on empowering women, these people certainly had a knack for rendering their visitors powerless, regardless of their gender. The sensation of being out of control worsened with every new encounter.

Daeson’s hands appeared in Synjan’s unfocussed line of sight and startled her. Again she froze as she realised she was not meant to be taking care of her own menial tasks. Guiltily, she looked at Diplomat Nama but their escort was distracted by a new group of Palace inhabitants approaching. Synjan took the opportunity to squeeze Daeson’s arm gratefully as she stood, adjusting her clothing again. Her frequent grooming was less about presentation than it was about reassuring herself that her lightweight dress was still there.

The knot of newcomers were clearly not guards. They were draped in gold finery that implied their positions as palace officials. There were three women and one man. He remained a respectful distance behind his companions as they swarmed around Diplomat Nama, smiling and cooing in their language, gesturing at Synjan and Daeson without including them in the conversation. Watching the ebb and flow of it, Synjan deduced that these women outranked Nama and were planning to take over from her. This supposition was proven right when Nama bowed away from them and bade her farewell.

“Welcome, Sister Synjan and… Daeson.”

The accented Authoritan drew her attention away from Nama and Synjan turned, trying to figure out which of the three women had spoken. They were all blonde and regal, staring with interest and polite smiles.

Synjan pressed her shoulder to Daeson’s arm, feeling like they should present a united front. She couldn’t recall a time where friendliness had unnerved her so much.

“Thank you. What happens now?”

Her blunt question was met with appreciative titters from two of them.

“Now I shall escort you to your quarters,” the woman who hadn’t giggled answered.

“How long will we be here?” Synjan queried of her.

“It depends,” a different sister spoke while a fleeting frown passed over the first one’s brow. It seemed one of them was tiring of the others. The trio shuffled around and the serious one beckoned them to follow. Synjan chose not to press the issue.

Beyond the foyer, the High Palace was a study in tasteful opulence. The dominant colour scheme was gold but it was judiciously woven through the furnishings and decorations as a highlight rather than in an obnoxious display of wealth. The front section of the building was more significant than it looked from outside and was filled with sweeping hallways lined with doors or curtained alcoves and benches, settees or clusters of armchairs. Some were occupied by conversing women that paused to smile speculatively at them as they passed, before their native language resumed at a more excited pace at their backs.

After descending two sets of broad staircases and moving through a dizzying variety of corridors, their group came to a stop in front of two doors, side by side.

“These are your apartments,” the serious woman said with an inclination of her head.

“We stay together,” Synjan frowned, pleased when she saw an expression that might have been impatience sweep across the woman’s face.

“I apologise, Sister Synjan, but you have separate apartments.”

“They are very close together,” one of the others interjected.

“You will have Phoak to assist you for the duration of your stay,” the third said brightly and the man that had been silently following them stepped forward.

“Mistress,” he greeted, lowering his head.

Synjan got the impression that his obsequiousness was a mask but his cloudy blue eyes were free of guile once he straightened up. She dismissed her paranoia as loss of control and new-world disassociation. It had taken a while to settle in J’Bdyamn as well.

Phoak wasn’t much taller than Synjan and was at least thirty years her senior but he took her backpack from Daeson effortlessly and waited between them while the serious woman spoke again.

“Daeson, please deposit your belongings in your suite and follow me,” she requested.

“Where’s he going?” Synjan cut in, alarmed by the notion that Daeson wouldn’t be with her—and equally alarmed by the realisation that she felt incapable of being away from him for any length of time.

“He will be granted an audience with High Priestess Sorcha,” the woman beamed.

“Blessed be her name,” the other two echoed in unison.

“I’m sure I’ll be alright,” Daeson assured her and went through the doorway to his room. When he emerged moments later, Synjan engulfed him in a hug.

“I’ll wait for you,” she promised, feeling like the words sounded overly needy. She reluctantly let him go as the women urged his release. After he’d rounded the corner beyond her usual sight, Synjan sighed and led Phoak into her room.

‘Apartment’ was the better word to describe it. It consisted of a luxuriously-appointed lounge and combined dining area, a huge bedroom and an extravagant bathroom.

“Shall I unpack your clothing, Mistress?” Phoak asked, standing at the entrance to the dressing area off the bedroom. The rack inside was crowded with a variety of Femme fashion, so the offer was unnecessary.

Synjan watched him speculatively, uncomfortable with having him serve her yet intrigued by the notion that she could demand information from him that none of the women would ever provide.

“I think everything in there either needs replacing or a damn good launder,” she told him wryly.

“I will see to it,” he nodded sagely.

She grinned at his solemnity, finding its presence when discussing sandy underwear highly amusing. “Thank you. Are you able to answer some of my questions?”

“Certainly,” Phoak declared, his back straightening.

“Excellent. Perhaps we could talk while we drink something cool?” she hinted.

Phoak organised for refreshments to be delivered to the room and, while they waited for it to arrive, he helped Synjan sort her clothing. Another slave came to collect what needed washing. Synjan watched the way Phoak gave the boy instructions. Even though he spoke a language she didn’t understand, she could see that Phoak held authority in the palace. She saw the same deference in the slaves that arrived with the drinks. They had also brought fruit and sweets.

“Please join me,” Synjan invited, indicating the chair opposite hers as she sat. She took a little cake from the generous platter in the centre of the table and poured herself an orange drink she assumed was juice as Phoak complied. A quick check on Daeson revealed that he was sitting and conversing with a solid-patterned woman. Was he alright? What would they make of him? Would he discuss his truth-telling power? Would they be able to share some sort of insight about it? With a pang, she turned her attention back to her immediate companion. “So tell me, Phoak, how long have you lived in the High Palace?”

“My entire life, Mistress,” he replied.

“How old are you?”

A wrinkle of concern flashed across his forehead but then it was gone. “I am sixty-eight, Mistress.”

Synjan’s eyebrows rose. “Does every Wanderer that visits this world come to the High Palace?”

“Oh no, Mistress. You are among a most lucky and elite group of Wanderers, to have been granted access to our world’s most venerable building and its glorious inhabitants.”

Synjan wasn’t sure what to say to his gushing so she chose not to acknowledge it. “Why are we here?”

“Because your… partner… is a Healer.”

She appreciated that he went to the effort of choosing his words so carefully. “And Healers are valued?”

“Everyone values good health, Mistress.”

Synjan bit back a retort and ate instead. The meal she’d had earlier had been modest and, as the exotic tastes and textures of the new foods registered on her unrefined palate, she realised that she was still hungry. She didn’t want to rush, though. She was intent on savouring every experience.

“Are we being kept here against our will?”

“If you wish to leave at any time, you may do so, Mistress.”

I can, or we can?”

“It is not my place to answer such things,” he demurred, lowering his gaze to the table.

“So what can you tell me?”

“I am a member of the highest ranked order of slaves on Demkoi, Mistress. My knowledge is vast and varied. I am able to answer most of your questions.”

“But there are limits?” she pressed.

He had the grace to nod this time. “I am afraid my information is limited to that which is known to the Authorities.”

“What?” Synjan blinked, disconcerted by any insinuated connection between her and the Authorities. “Why?”

“Because they are enemies to Wanderers and to Demkoi. They cannot be trusted.”

“I would never speak to them.”

“Voluntarily, perhaps,” Phoak contradicted gently.

Synjan frowned at the implications. “Don’t they have a base here?”

“Yes. They are kept closely contained.”

“So you’re worried that they’ll force me to communicate what I know if I happen to go near their base?”

“You will not accidentally happen upon the Authorities.”

“How do you know that?”

“If you do not become citizens of Demkoi, you will not linger in our world.”

Synjan’s eyes widened in disbelief. “You’re kidding!”

Phoak appeared genuinely disturbed by her accusation of jest. “No, Mistress, I speak the truth.”

“You’re telling me I won’t be allowed to explore your world, though? Unless I choose to live here permanently?”

“That is our policy, yes. Wanderers that plan to continue beyond our world are assisted through it as swiftly as possible, to protect them from Authority Hunters and our world from revealing anything untoward.”

“So once Daeson and I leave here, we’ll basically be escorted off the world?”

Phoak smiled reassuringly at her. “It is not as harsh as that, Mistress. The Diplomat that brought you here will accompany you to the Portal and though it will be a direct journey, it will not lack for excitement. You will constantly be exposed to the beauty of our world. I guarantee that the memory of it will remain with you as you spread your message through all the worlds you see.”

“My message?” Synjan blinked, confused.

“That of the true Gods.”

“The true Gods?”

“Naturally,” he confirmed, behaving as if Synjan should know exactly what he was talking about. “The Authorities are ignorant, as we all know—belief in one God?” he scoffed. “A God that has no face or name, no purpose or betrothal to one of the higher callings as our Gods do. Wanderers are true followers, chosen of the Gods and blessed with powers that allow them to travel through the worlds performing their sacred duty, rejoicing in the glory of the Gods and spreading knowledge of their wonderment as they go.”

“The wonderment of the Gods?” Synjan queried, wanting to be sure she was understanding the slave correctly. His zealotry was overwhelming yet utterly convincing. She didn’t need Daeson to tell her that Phoak believed every word of what he was spouting.

“Of course,” he said. “Perhaps you haven’t been travelling for long but you would have seen the Round of Pillars when you arrived in our world. Surely that warmed your heart?”

“Uh, I was more curious about what it was for, to tell you the truth,” Synjan laughed weakly.

“Each Round is a sacred place, like a temple. They are landing points for the Wanderers that visit our world. Each sister in stasis is an assistant to Panthea, the Goddess of Wanderers.”

Synjan frowned. “Wait a minute. Dea is the Goddess of Wanderers on my world.”

“That is another of her names,” Phoak agreed, inclining his head. “She has many names and many true followers—all the Gods do. That is why the role of World Wanderer is so important. Too important to risk exposure to Authorities and tainting the purity of the message.”

“There you go with that message business again,” Synjan muttered.

“Wanderer women such as yourself are meant to rule the worlds. Demkoi is the only one so far that has understood this sacred purpose but I’m sure many more will receive the message as you travel on, speaking of the true Gods and rejoicing in their names. Should you be shown the mercy of our venerable Goddess and join a Fold, you will deserve a place in the World of Worlds.”

There were numerous things he’d said that Synjan considered querying but the last struck a chord within her that hadn’t twanged since she’d been a small child listening to stories upon her father’s knee. She’d thought of them as tales of fancy, nothing more. “The World of Worlds? I’ve heard of that! It’s some sort of perfect world, isn’t it?”

Phoak nodded. “A world created just for Wanderers, at the farthest edge of the Everyworld. Blessed by the Gods—and likely inhabited by them, too.”

“My father used to speak of it,” she breathed in wonderment.

Her companion nodded approvingly. “The Authorities malign it as fantasy and condemn our beliefs as radical and blasphemous but the faithful know the truth. On Demkoi, we are guided by our High Priestess and given the opportunity to welcome and protect all World Wanderers when they appear in our Rounds. It is as close to the calling as stationary devotees such as ourselves may get.”

He seemed partially dismayed by the role he was forced to play and Synjan couldn’t fathom the depth of the horror she felt on his behalf. Phoak had far more to mourn than the fact he could never Wander but he didn’t appear to understand the scope of his bondage.

“Wanderers always land in your—what did you call it—your Round?” she queried.

“The Round of Pillars. That is correct.”

“Isn’t it dangerous that we always appear in the same place?”

“Why would it be?”

“The Authorities could stake them out.”

“The Authorities have no jurisdiction here, their power is too limited for them to pose a threat.”

“I was exposed to this notion on the last world I was in—Wanderers usually appeared at the same place there, too. It concerns me. It may be safe here but I doubt it is on other worlds.”

“That is why the Goddess Panthea looks down upon you and blesses you with powers to help you Wander,” he said with a deeply satisfied smile.

Synjan didn’t have it in her to keep arguing because Phoak didn’t have it in him to understand.

CHAPTER THREE

White Cell

White.

At first Hawke couldn’t make out any detail… then he saw imperfection in the whiteness; a seam. His gaze followed the seam to a corner and then downward, to a small table and chair. The furniture was also white. A tendril of anxiety threaded a path into his stomach.

He sat up, finding he was dressed in white pyjamas. Somebody either had an obsession or harboured resentment against colour. He rubbed his face with his hands as a memory surfaced.

Femme Enforcers had shot him with their bubble gun and watery goop had turned into a hard shell around his head, blocking his air. He’d passed out. Why wasn’t he dead now? Maybe the goop could detect when someone lost consciousness. Bitches probably thought it was a humane way to pacify a prisoner instead of cuffing hands.

Hawke took stock of his surroundings. One bed, one table, one chair, no sink or toilet. Three white walls and an open space. Beyond it he could see a room like his own, with a narrow corridor in between. The opposite room was unoccupied, also missing its front wall. He didn’t trust it—they wouldn’t let him just walk out of here. Still, it would be prudent to check.

He got up, bare feet unprepared for the cold tiled floor. He picked up the chair and closed the distance to the open space. He’d learnt his lesson from the shock Woy’s specs had given him when he’d attempted to drive her car. He didn’t want to get blasted for touching some invisible wall. He tossed the chair, watching as the arc of its flight was interrupted by an invisible force. The chair clattered to the floor.

Even though he’d been expecting it, Hawke was disappointed. It was either the cleanest tough-glass in all of the worlds or he was being contained in a Shielded cell. Ironically, because of him, the Authorities had rooms like this at the DOME to prevent captured Wanderers from using their powers to escape. Hawke’s Shield wasn’t powerful enough to have a physical presence but it was enough to stop Controllers from taking over staff, Intuits to detect what people were thinking or Ghosts from walking through walls—theoretically. Nobody had managed to capture a Ghost to test it.

This Shield, the one that had the kind of physical force that could stop a projectile, would’ve been especially useful to him. Could it knock something down? Sure. Could it stop bullets? Absolutely. His blood was thin enough to taunt him with powers he could’ve had, with things he could’ve done, the Portals he could’ve seen, and just enough to isolate him from both sides. No, that wasn’t true—Wanderers would have welcomed him just like the Authorities had. He’d made the choice not to associate with scum.

Betrayers. The lot of them.

Even Synjan had betrayed Ellis by running away. That was all Wanderers ever did. Run away. Useless, fucking cowards. He could feel anger rising inside him, hot and unreasonable.

“Hey!” Hawke shouted, in case anybody could hear him through the Shield. “Hey! I need water!”

He heard footsteps, so the Shield didn’t block sound.

The footsteps belonged to a tall, rigid woman who wore the silver uniform of an Enforcer upon her body and repulsion upon her face. He wasn’t too impressed with her, either.

“I need water,” he repeated, noticing that she wasn’t holding anything. Her hands were flat at her sides, her shoulders stiff and slightly elevated. It was easy to see her tension, though she didn’t look nervous. He thought it was peculiar that she wasn’t holding a weapon—though the Shield wouldn’t let anything through. If she was his keeper, then he was grateful the Shield separated them. She looked unstable.

“Do you speak Authoritan?” he asked, unable to remember the local word for water. When she said nothing, he mimicked eating and drinking.

“I’m going to need food and water, unless you plan on starving me to death.”

“That is an acceptable outcome.”


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