Imagine a civilization with a caste system that is shackled by an oppressive government and trapped by geological barriers, where the only means of escape is to join an underground community, to follow the cryptic guidance of an advanced race that lives on the far side of a perilous sea, which is veiled by a mantle of fog. Whispering Mist is the tale of Rayna, an ironically rebellious young woman, and Nyle, her treasonous yet honorable lover, and their quest for political and personal liberation. Supported by multiple subplots and comic relief, the central narrative is set between the intertwined worlds of Valaycia and Yugatania, which are ruled ambiguously by the alchemistic Vudaki, a godlike race of semi-benevolent beings who swim beneath and fly above the Sea of Smoke. As an epic fantasy, Whispering Mist employs a unique vocabulary to describe atypical creatures that populate an original world with two moons of different colors. If you seek an author who writes concisely with precision, Marley Kin will satisfy. If you seek an unconventional story, Whispering Mist will mystify.
As she plodded along with Evak at her side, kicking sand with her bare feet, Rayna was still furious over her grandfather’s imprisonment. After debating whether to file a formal grievance with the government, she had settled for venting anger on her father for not doing this himself, broadening the schism between them, which would exasperate her mother for days to come.
“My grandmother only has three years left before they put her away,” Evak offered.
The sea’s perpetual curtain of mist was joined by a fluctuating fog that teased Rayna with fleeting pockets of visibility. “That doesn’t seem to bother you too much.” She was a little annoyed with his nonchalant attitude.
Evak cocked his head and shrugged one shoulder. “It’s more political for me.”
“Having your grandmother locked away in a prison is not personal?”
He flashed her a grave look. “Yeah, sure it is, but it won’t help to get too upset about it.”
A piece of driftwood emerged from the fog to trip them but it failed. Rayna felt powerless, as she snatched a seashell from the sand and hurled it at the indifferent Sea of Smoke. Her eyes followed the shell, until it landed near a short man, who stood in the tiny breakers, oblivious to their presence. She grabbed Evak’s hand and moved closer, sensing something different about the stranger. Was the fog fooling her, or did the man have blue skin?! “Evak, did you see the color of his skin?”
“Yeah . . . It was blue.”
Still clutching his hand, she took a few tentative steps, hoping to confirm the impossible. The fog cleared once again, and they stopped, only forty feet away, transfixed, as the man pulled off his shirt to reveal an upper body of blue flesh. Was the blue pigment theatrical make-up or some kind of bizarre tattoo? Before Rayna could answer this question, the man rushed forward, plunged into the water, and swam away with powerful strokes that seemed inconsistent for a person of his size. Who was this stranger, a liberator? Was he trying to reach Valaycia on his own? She released Evak’s hand and ran into the water, soaking her favorite green slacks to the knees.
They watched him swim to the east beneath the sea’s smoky mantle. “Have you ever seen anyone try to escape?”
Evak shook his head, settling next to her. “Not me.” He stuffed his hands into the deep pockets of his striped trousers. “But he won’t make it very far.”
Rayna wondered if the Vudaki would rise up to stop him like they did with all the other renegades who tried to get away without proper guidance from the Liberation Movement. But they never came, and the little blue man disappeared into the distant confluence of water and vapor.
She gawked at her lover. “I thought for sure we’d see the Vudaki stop him.”
Would he reach that mysterious land, where Aunt Loreen and Cousin Valeena waited for their loved-ones to join them? Rayna would never know, until she reached Valaycia herself.
Dressed in black, with perspiration dripping from his camouflaged face, and sea-salt coating his throat, Governor Nyle Delakoat rowed a small, metal-framed boat with all his strength, trying to keep up with the tattered ship that sailed a quarter mile ahead. The sticky night air seemed darker under the sea's thick blanket of vapor, which hung thirty feet above the water, extending its misty folds at least three times that distance into the sky. Wrinkling the sea’s smooth brow, the renegade vessel was pulling away; nevertheless, he could easily spy its progress with his leather-bound binoculars.
Nyle had persevered through ten weeks of painstaking surveillance to witness the fate of those who dared to trespass on the Vudaki’s wet turf with the hope of reaching Valaycia without the secret aid of the Liberation, and soon he would know, as long as the mythical beings chose not to attack him. As he pondered that unsettling possibility, the advantage of it struck him: if the Vudaki did descend upon his tiny craft, he would then gain an intimate glimpse into their tangled mystery.
Nyle absorbed the sweat from his face with a tender sleeve, and considered the soothing fact that most runaways did return to tell their tales, and none of the horror stories frightened him; there were just as many people who told a different story of mercy and majesty. He summoned the visionary painting that haunted his parlor wall, wanting so much to meet the legendary creatures that had saturated his childhood imagination, which he now augmented with reverent awe for the fathomless world that infused these secretive waters. Like so many others, Nyle was familiar with the king and queen’s serpentine anatomy, and how it differed from their offspring, who had walking legs and wing-free arms, just like he did, and yet he longed for a face-to-face encounter.
Grandmother Turani was long dead, yet the sound of her contagious laughter was just as lively as ever, reminding Nyle that his beloved ancestor was one of the few who were utterly fearless when it came to the Vudaki; like other visionaries, she had always kept the faith that their higher purpose would one day be revealed.
Nyle could still see a few faithful lights on Jelico’s shore peeking under the vaporous covers. Then, a man's bellowed warning snapped his head forward to see the ship's main sail ablaze. He stared with astonishment, as a second burst of fire ignited the smaller sail, followed by a barrage of blazes erupting in the air around the ship, evicting the darkness, causing him to shudder.
After lifting the eyeglasses to his face with haste, Nyle watched a man throw a spear and watched another leap from the bow into the dark unknown. He searched for the Vudaki, certain he would capture a complete picture for his mental gallery, but they remained shrouded in the web of fog above the vessel, teasing him, only revealing an occasional wing or a gust of fire.
Nyle discarded his binoculars and scanned the area, hoping his naked eyes might catch a broader glimpse. The Vudaki made no attempt to harm the sailors. In protecting Valaycia, it seemed as though their only objective was to destroy the ship's primary means of mobility, which showed striking sophistication for a race of creatures regarded by many as monsters.
It struck Nyle that the escapees might need help, and when he probed the danger of moving closer, intuition seized his ear, whispering that the Vudaki no longer posed a threat: they had already deterred the foolish visitors that vandalized their home. The only risk was exposing his conspicuous identity, so he grabbed the oars and rowed with new strength, aided by the torrent of adrenaline gorging his bloodstream.
Rayna stood in her family’s impeccably clean study, waiting for her parents, peering through the outdoor twilight from the room’s only window at her little brother, Basha, who played with two other friendly lads from their neighborhood. As she watched the boys try to catch lightning-bugs in a jar, her mild laughter was absentminded, since she was preoccupied with her peculiar experience on the beach earlier that day. Obsessed with ambition, her father, Gyan, only took one day off each week for leisure and family time, and though this happened to be his weekly vacation day, it was late in the evening, and Rayna’s store of patience was almost depleted.
Hearing footsteps, she released the blue lace curtain and prepared herself for the imminent confrontation.
Although her father had a sedentary lifestyle, he was a lean man. “What’s so urgent?” Gyan demanded, entering the study with Celandra close behind. He was still wearing his official gray uniform with its wide black, vertical stripes. Her mother wore a long beige dress made of silk. Like many of her dresses, it featured a row of round buttons, made from dark brown sea-shells, that ran along the front of the garment from top to bottom.
Never one to mince words, Rayna faced them and said, “Evak and I saw an odd stranger on the beach this morning. For a long time, we watched him swim away to the east, but the Vudaki never came to stop him.”
“It’s not the first time we’ve heard of such a thing, and I’m sure those hideous sea-monsters destroyed the man farther out where you couldn’t see them. They’re very discrete with their activities, Rayna. You know this.” Her father’s tone was adamant.
“That’s what we’re told, but there was something else about this man that was incredible.” Her parents waited for her explanation, and she wondered if they would believe her. “We got a close look at this man’s face, and he took his shirt off before he swam away. I can’t really explain what we saw, but his skin was blue all over.”
Celandra frowned. “Blue skin?”
Rayna scrutinized her father’s expression for clues. He seemed disturbed by her story as he looked away. “Father, I’ve never lied to you, and Evak saw the same thing. Like a lot of other people, we’ve heard the stories about visitors from the Distant Land with blue skin.”
Gyan was still diverting his gaze. “Those stories are myths and fables, nothing more.”
“If the stories are true, you would know about it, wouldn’t you, Father?”
Gyan looked at Rayna sternly. “Don’t ever speak of this to anyone.” He left the room with haste, leaving Celandra with a dumbfounded look on her face. After twenty years of life with her father, Rayna always knew when he was hiding something. She looked at her mother and shook her head. With a soft sigh, Celandra released the air she held hostage. Contrary to Evak’s belief that the blue man must be part of a new, bizarre religious cult, Rayna believed that he was connected somehow to the Vudaki and Valaycia, and that he reached the mysterious land unharmed. One day, she would know the truth. Until then, she had to contend with her parent’s refusal to seek that same truth.
Her mother knocked on the window to get her younger brother’s attention. “I don’t know what to say, Rayna.” She knocked on the window again more sharply, as Rayna left the room.
His tiny vessel drifting past the burning galleon, Nyle observed the crew of survivors rowing their lifeboat back to Jelico. Now that their covert escape was aborted, he hoped to get a closer look at the Vudaki. Not wanting to get too close to ship, he shifted north, and to his astonishment, there was still a man on the burning deck who did his best to stop the flames from spreading. Crazy fool.
Before he could intervene, a horde of Vudaki outriders dropped below the fog, flying in a circle at such a rapid speed he was unable to distinguish their features. The draft from their maneuver was so strong it stirred up a whirlpool, almost capsizing his bantam craft. As they hovered closer to the ship, the air current fueled the blaze, causing the mad sailor to shrink away.
“Get off that ship, man! Are you insane?!–You'll burn to death!”
The sailor heeded his warning and dove into the water in the direction of Nyle’s boat.
After hauling the soaked man into his tiny vessel with ease, he looked up, but the outriders were gone. With tremendous power and an apparent preference for mercy, they were magnificent beings. Exhaling deeply, he cast off the tension that tied up his gut. His dream of seeing them up close, of looking one ‘rider in the eye for a brief moment, would have to wait for another time. But how long?
“What are you doing out here, friend, trying to escape like us?” asked the dripping man. Despite the obvious setback, his husky tone was almost cheerful. Maybe the man actually was crazy.
At least the black face-paint was working so far. “Only a fool or a desperate man would do such a thing, and I'm neither.”
The man donned a coy expression. “Maybe I'm a little of both.”
Nyle softened his tone. “Maybe I'm a police officer who just saved your life.” He redirected the craft and started rowing back. With an unpredictable passenger, returning undetected would be more challenging, so he closed his eyes to explore the best strategy.
The next morning, the leaders of Yugatania convened in the coastal city of Abakon, the district capital of Bentara, where they usually vied with the ambassador of Valaycia. Sovereign Varacus spent most of his time there, ruling the land from his governor’s palace. The castle’s foundational roots grew out of a seaside cliff, and like a hearty tree chiseled from the lavender rock, the massive structure had a vantage point high above the sea’s blanket of mist, but since the fog climbed so high, Valaycia remained veiled in mystery, even to those with telescopes to spy. Almost one-thousand-years-old, the palace displayed more curves than angles, and more domes than spires.
Since Nyle's adventure of the previous night was never sanctioned by his colleagues, he would never tell them about it. Though the runaways returned to Jelico safely, evading arrest, he decided against incarcerating the escapees to protect his identity and settled for reprimanding the man he saved. Disappointed by failing to get an intimate look at the Vudaki, he was comforted to know, beyond any doubt, that they were not the murdering beasts his government had always claimed.
The lean frame of Sovereign-Governor Adison Varacus marched into his octagonal Strategy Chamber with protracted strides, his full-length, purple cape billowing behind him like an unfurled flag screaming for loyalty. Cropped to the scalp in the front, his straight, tawny hair grazed his shoulders in the back. Nyle lagged behind, enjoying how Governor Jaleena Korchek challenged her metabolism to keep pace with the man who presided over their three states. As long as they agreed, the three of them ruled the republic of Yugatania as a group; if there was any dispute, Varacus had the power to veto the others. The three leaders were responsible for administrating different departments and appointing secretaries to manage them. As the Governor of Kryton, Nyle regulated the departments of Labor, Law Enforcement, Water and Sewage, and Athletics.
Under a curved, maize ceiling with a skylight-apex, the ever-present Guardian hunkered beside the Lord Sovereign’s gold leather chair, her eyes probing anyone who dared to grip them.
Varacus took the Guardian everywhere, since the wild animal was idolized as a powerful talisman for those fortunate enough to win its mystifying loyalty. According to local history, Varacus had a rare childhood: at the age of sixteen, he left home to embark on a quest, and a year later, he saved one of the coveted Lukanda from the unparalleled jaws of a crimson cat.
With dull teeth, twelve toes, four-fingered hands, and long thumbs, Lukanda were primarily vegetarian, and, parading more colors than a rainbow, their irresistible eyes had dilating pupils that bewitched almost everyone. With surprising dexterity and grace, they usually walked upright on their hind legs; however, they always bounded on all four limbs when attacking an enemy with their deadly pointed horns. According to popular legend, when someone gained its fidelity, as Varacus had, a Lukanda would dedicate its life, as a debt of gratitude, by serving as a bodyguard, which inspired the official title of Guardian. Another legend, lesser known, claimed that the Guardian’s master was also bestowed with special powers, which Nyle had not yet discovered, and Varacus had not yet revealed.
As Governor of Jelico, Varacus supervised the departments of Science, Technology, Law, Higher Education, and Public Media, the last of which was a special branch for dispensing information and propaganda. Settled close to his Guardian, Varacus began the meeting by declaring, “You suppressed the riots in Kryton effectively, Nyle, but the milder demonstrations in Galamar could've been handled better.”
Nyle lingered near the open doors that led to a stone terrace. “We deployed more deputies than usual, but the Rebellion is growing, and they're well-organized.”
Governor Jaleena Korchek did not hesitate to add that, “Three separate protests were happening in Galamar simultaneously, and two of them numbered in the thousands”
Nyle tossed her a thin smile. Bedecked in a sheer, maroon cape that covered a matching dress, she perched on the edge of the Sovereign's desk, crossed her shapely legs, and cupped her exposed knee with delicate hands. Arching her lower back, Jaleena’s voluptuous, shapely figure was easy to trace as it pressed against the clinging fibers. As the Governor of Galamar, she presided over the secretaries of Agriculture, Transportation, Commerce, and Healthcare.
Ignoring Jaleena, the Sovereign stroked his pruned, blond goatee. “We may have to increase the prison-term for convicted rebels.”
Nyle had predicted the Sovereign-Governor would take such a punitive stance. “If we increase the sentence to two years for the first offense, we better be prepared for a backlash.”
“I prefer optimism, Governor,” said Varacus. “Rebellion is best deterred by control.”
“I have to agree with the Lord Sovereign,” Jaleena offered, glinting at Nyle, as she crossed her arms.
Despite her endorsement, Nyle tried to redirect their strategy with more tact. “I appreciate that, but some rebels might be provoked.”
“Our Valaycian enemies pose the real danger with these visitations and their peaceful invasion,” said Varacus. “I want this network of saboteurs exposed during my term as Sovereign.”
Nyle gazed past the paltry terrace, beyond the billowy dunes, at the sea with its thick canopy, a haze that hovered relentlessly above the surface. Were the Vudaki their enemies, too? A wild howl aborted his search for answers. With alarming speed and phenomenal agility, the Guardian bounded past him and leaped onto the railing of the external balcony, which rose to a treacherous height above the gnarled cliff. Scanning the shore, Nyle spotted a Vudaki outrider gliding back into its misty harbor, never making a sound, at least not a sound he could hear.
Two weeks had passed since Rayna’s birthday. With anticipation, she leaned against the pleated bark of an old needlenut tree that nestled near the pebbled edge of Phantom Lake. She inhaled deeply and noted how moist and cool the air was for a late summer evening. As an adolescent, she would subvert taboo by visiting this haunted haven, only to be scared off by the swooping blackangels for swimming in the lake’s dark red, forbidden water.
The small body of water was more of a pond than a lake, and it swelled less than one mile from Haggard Inlet, which marked the shift from sandy beaches to the wooded, rocky cliffs that stretched to the border separating Jelico's central district of Bentara from the northern district of Orion where the lower class citizens shivered much of the time. The lake slumbered in the heart of Scarlet Hills, one of the most coveted towns in Bentara where most of the upper-class drifted with relative amounts of complacence. Somewhat ashamed of her elevated station, Rayna reflected on her grandmother Kaluna and the middle-class who occupied Teragon, the state's sweaty southern region.
Only located in Bentara, twelve frog ponds were scattered along the 1,200 mile coast that twisted its way from north to south. Nurturing twelve varieties of flying fogs, the eerie lochs were all less than two miles from the Sea of Smoke. Phantom Lake was the first visitation site established by the Valacyian guides, and the site of a fulfilled prophecy centuries ago. Like the green-eyed blackangels, the slippery frogs could only be found in these pockets of wet secrets that were saturated with centuries of fact and fable.
A spooky blackangel cooed from a secluded hollow in one of the gnarly cranny-trees, giving Rayna a slight shudder. She stared at the tangle of branches, spying only one luminescent, green eye, a fragmentary shape that validated her belief that her people needed to talk about the visitations more freely. After sliding along the trunk’s swirly bark, she rested on the carpet of glittering red moss that warmed the forest floor and its patchy web of roots. In the distance, the rich tones of dusk seemed to be in a hurry to surrender the sky to the replicating stars.
In love with moonlight, Rayna gazed at the quarter moon that stared back at her, while lazy tracts of clouds drifted through a maze of shimmering beacons. The smaller, yellow moon was almost full. To her eye, it wavered only two feet below its big, blue brother. Eager to embrace the double full moon eclipse in four years, she tried to imagine the glory of the last eclipse that her ancestors communed with more than 300 years ago.
Her mind wandered to the argument she had with her mother earlier. Ire repossessed her body, so she paced the edge of the lake, barefooted, trying to exorcize it. Her mother seemed more cowardly than her father; at least he took a definite position and defended it. All her mother wanted was artificial peace somewhere in the homeless middle. But maybe that was unfair. After all, she could be searching for some kind of healthy balance.
Rayna stopped to gaze at the blue moon, and the cool beams illuminated a resolution: Though her mother deserved respect and patience, she would have to face the nasty truth. Before her decision could settle, a thrashing wind erupted, followed by a dazzling light, driving the blackangels from their hiding places; then, turning fable to fact, a choir of frogs popped up from the water to croak a shrill note that shook Rayna’s body with pleasure. Overwhelmed by the mass of open mouths that dotted the surface of the pond, her eyes darted in every direction. Was she dreaming?
“I, too, look forward to the double lunar eclipse.”
Rayna’s body wheeled to face her visitor, who seemed to appear from nowhere, chasing the wind, the light, and the frogs away. “Where did you come from? Were you reading my mind?”
Taloras approached Rayna, stopping in front of her with little space between them, her slanted eyes the same height as Rayna’s. She wore a simple, crimson gown that brushed her feet. “Sometimes I get lucky when our moons are closer together.” She reached out her hand. “I'm Ambassador Taloras. This is the first of three visitations.” Her handshake was strong yet relaxed.
“I’m honored to meet you, Ambassador.” Taloras’s warm smile was framed by long, braided tresses.
Rayna’s mind was jumpy. “I hope you can answer all my questions.” She would save her question about the conundrum of the frogs and the lakes and the wizardry of the visitations for later.
The ambassador’s deep voice bounced with the energy of a child but rang with middle-aged maturity. “I'll do my best.”
“Our government says your people can't be trusted because you're secretive. They say you’re using us as slaves. Some even think you make sacrifices of our people to the Vudaki.”
“What do you believe?”
“If you needed slaves, you could just herd a bunch of us onto a big boat and take us away. And there's lots of stories about the Vudaki sparing people who tried to escape without your help. My Uncle Keegan believes in you, and so did my Aunt Loreen and Cousin Valeena.”
With languid ease, she laced her fingers together. “I'm quite fond of Loreen.” The ambassador's speech and manner had a soothing quality.
Rayna traced the wavy texture of the lustrous moss that cushioned her bare feet. “I miss them a lot.” She looked up with hope. “Are they happy with your people?”
Taloras nodded. “Yes. And beyond that, I'm not at liberty to talk about it. If you choose the way of radical liberation, you can find that answer for yourself.”
Rayna absorbed the Ambassador’s explanation before posing her next question. “If Sovereign Varacus hates you so much, why doesn't he try harder to stop these visitations?”
“Because of the technology we give your people. Because the frog ponds are protected by a power beyond his control. Like most leaders before him, he’s very shrewd. He knows if he suppresses the truth too much, he'll lose more people, so he tolerates our visitations.”
Rayna recalled that nineteen years ago upper-caste families of Jelico began to prohibit their children from attending visitations, threatening to shun them if they chose to be unorthodox. Like Rayna, some candidates gambled with their family's affection; however, most of them eventually rejected the Movement, because they were promised wealth and fame, because the government seduced them with the possibility of higher political status reserved for the Bentaran upper-class.
Rayna glanced at the swarm of stars that winked from their august platform. “I hear a lot of people never show up the night of their first visitation.”
Taloras nodded. “Almost two thirds of your people–mostly Bentarans–never come because of fear or the prejudice they learn from your government. And most of those who do come reject our path to freedom. This also explains why Varacus allows us to visit your people.”
“Why would anyone reject freedom?”
“Life is easier here than it is in Galamar, even for the lower classes from Orion and Teragon who can never have real political power, and it's much easier than life in Kryton. It's no mistake that Jelico is the only state that holds free elections.”
Rayna shook her head. Oppression. “Sometimes I hate living here.”
“Freedom requires more than desire, and hatred will only slow you down. Freedom calls for discipline, sacrifice, and courage.”
“I have what it takes to achieve liberation, Ambassador.”
“In that case, I can now give you the first of three gifts and three rituals that will help you manifest the freedom you seek.”
With an uncanny presence, the Guardian strode passed Nyle to resume her place by the Sovereign’s side, and her magnetism drew him along to face his fellow governors. Nyle continued to avoid the creature’s disturbing gaze.
“I've tolerated these demonstrations long enough,” said Varacus. “I'm passing a new law to authorize a Grievance Council to reroute as much protesting as possible.”
Governor Korchek’s smile was agreeable, as she slipped into one of the ten commodious, golden chairs, her reddish-blond locks bouncing as she did so. “That way, we can regulate and re-direct most complaints in our favor.” She often made elegant yet casual gestures with her hands, and this was no exception. Even when she frowned, which was rare, her face seemed to be as smooth as her polished fingernails. Despite her affable way of communicating, she was smart, shrewd and guarded.
Varacus smiled faintly. “Precisely. And the sooner we implement the new labor policy, the quicker it will be accepted. If we face more rioting, it's better to stop it now and get it over with.”
Nyle doubted that, yet he understood how unwise it would be to voice another objection so soon, so he took a seat in one of the soft leather chairs and explored the finer details of the carved landscape that decorated the center of the chamber’s glass-covered table.
The Sovereign flashed one of his confident smiles. “Every citizen of Kryton will be employed by the Republic with a fixed income that meets basic needs. If they refuse to work, they can beg for charity or relocate to the Canyons to live off the land.”
“There's not much game or vegetation out there to live on,” Nyle added.
His tone was suddenly offensive. “Then they'll have to live with the consequences.”
Sensing her master’s anger, the Guardian aimed its breaching gaze at Nyle who disguised his irritation by granting Varacus a slow nod of consent and one more small victory.
Varacus continued with a less challenging edge. “With a smaller population that's easier to please, Galamar will have an open market system with only emergency government support.”
Jaleena’s smoky blue eyes quickly became more serious, as she glanced in Nyle’s direction, before saying, “That may not go over well with the poor. They rely heavily on public assistance.”
The Sovereign’s impatience seemed evident. “You never objected when I first proposed this as a possiblity.”
“That’s true, Governor,” she admitted, sliding a jeweled hand across the glaring table. “But we could use more time to make a smoother transition.”
The tone of Adison’s voice fell by an octave. “I just gave you my reasons for doing it sooner.”
Jaleena shot Nyle another glimpse that looked like a plea for help.
Varacus glanced at Nyle and then looked at Jaleena again. “This won't work unless I have your full support.”
Nyle saw wisdom in placating the Sovereign. “And you'll have it, Governor.”
“From both of us,” Jaleena added.
“Good.” He accentuated his words by striding back and forth. “As far as Jelico’s concerned, most jobs will operate in the open market, but the more prestigious and lucrative positions will serve government institutions, so the upper-class will be employed by the Republic.”
Nyle’s eyes fell to the glossy, stone floor, disturbed by Varacus's mounting arrogance and defensiveness. Knowing that Varacus’s wife was traveling a lot more than usual, Nyle wondered if that was triggering the switch in his colleague’s demeanor, or if he was just revealing his true character now that he was the elected Sovereign. Of one thing Nyle was sure: the Guardian’s magic was feeding Varacus’s misguided righteousness, and most people were succumbing to his persuasive mixture of charm and control.
Addressing Nyle, Varacus spoke firmly. “Expand your police force in Jelico. I demand to know how our enemies are helping these liberators to escape. If we can't visit Valaycia, then no one can, and if I have to put the total population of Bentara in prison to stop these escapes, I will.”
“Eventually, we’ll unravel their technology and their mysterious powers,” said Nyle.
Jaleena shifted in her chair to face Varacus squarely. “He's right. One day soon we'll destroy the influence they have over our people.”
Varacus managed to smile. “Now we’re acting more like a team.”
Nyle resisted the urge to laugh with ridicule. There was no team. So soon after their election, Nyle already felt an acute need to find a way to readjust the scales of power and protect their precarious state of equilibrium, before the current imbalance demanded a toll his people that they could never afford.
“If you desire freedom, then you need to follow my instructions closely. Before I give you the first gift, there's one more thing we ask.” Taloras hesitated. “Although everyone's three gifts are the same, we ask candidates not to talk about them with anyone, except your Liberation Guide and your fellow liberators. Some people have ignored this request, which led to all sorts of misguided myths. All I can say is that talking about the rituals dilutes their power.” Before Rayna could ask why, the ambassador smiled broadly. “Your first gift is a wonderful creature with two lives.” Taloras pulled a live frog from her pocket and held it out. The frog stretched its spotted wings and greeted Rayna with a soft croak.
She shifted her gaze back and forth from Taloras to the frog. “A frog? I don't understand.”
“Frogs have a strong connection to our race, and like your people, we also honor the frog as a totem animal with special powers. Treasure it as a symbol of your future liberation.” Taloras handed the frog to Rayna.
Not too slimy. Rayna stared at the small amphibian that pulsed with life in her hand.
“For now, you must bond with the creature.”
Looking at the ambassador, she raised an eyebrow.
“He was born in this lake, but he matured in Valaycia. He heard your name repeated a thousand times over the past few days. To complete this ritual, you need to look into his eyes and gently stroke his throat, as I say your name and stroke his back. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” Rayna gazed into the frog's eyes and rubbed his throat while Taloras performed her part of the ritual. The frog clearly croaked the sound of Rayna’s name.
“It said my name! I never knew frogs could talk. Is it some kind of magic or a miracle?”
“It is both those things and more. Unfortunately, after being influenced by family and friends, most people deny this ever happened.”
Rayna detected a trace of disappointment in the ambassador’s voice. “Unless I lose my mind, I could never make that mistake.”
Taloras chuckled. “Now place the frog into the lake.”
“You mean I have to give up my first gift so soon?”
Taloras laughed freely. “It's crucial that you place the frog in the water.”
Confused, Rayna placed the frog in the pond. When she stood up to face the ambassador again, Taloras was holding a life-size carving of second frog.
“This wooden frog will act as a substitute. Your instructions are to visit this lake as much as possible to watch how the frogs behave in and out of the water. Use them as a source of inspiration. Then, once each day at home, imagine the frogs’ behavior as you gaze at this carving.” She handed the green frog to Rayna.
Rayna knitted her brow. Silly ritual. Maybe this was why the Liberation was so unpopular.
“This exercise will anchor the frog’s image firmly in your mind. The more often you perform the rituals we give you, the sooner you'll be ready to enter Valaycia.”
“There's so many frogs in this lake—How can I know which one's mine?”
Taloras gently touched her arm. “Your frog will always know who you are.”
Rayna looked at her totem. “They don't look that smart.”
A faint ripple of laughter ruffled Taloras’s face. “And when you're ready to leave, your frog will be the one to let you know.”
“I don't understand. How's all this possible? How does this prepare me to escape?”
“Just return here as often as you can to listen to the frogs as they sing at night or watch them play during the daylight hours.”
Her anxiety deepened. “But I have so many questions.”
“Be courageous, be patient, and have faith.” To underscore her reply, Taloras twisted her head and bowed slightly. “Come to this spot again at twilight in two days, and Chancellor Melodius will give you your second gift.” She placed a hand on Rayna’s shoulder. “I'll continue to visit you from time to time. Until then, trust our guidance and take good care.”
The wind and light exploded again, causing Rayna to cover her face. When she lowered her arms, Taloras was gone.
“Come again.” Rayna stared into the dark forest with longing, disappointed that she still harbored lonely questions. Her parents were waiting at home; maybe they had some answers. If not, she knew Uncle Keegan would.
As if responding to her quandary, a frog leaped out of the wet darkness to land on the shore several feet away. Her heart pounding faster, Rayna drew a deep breath, and her sinuses soaked up the smell of aqua-life dancing around her. As she exhaled, a surge of passion shot up her spine to place a beaming grin on her face. Freedom echoed in her mind. Was it possible?
With a sharp croak, the frog hopped along the slim beach, disappearing into the night.