“This is it!” Gabriel exclaimed, jumping to the air. He hovered, the wind created from his wings sending a discarded scroll rolling across the floor.
Alex sat up abruptly, looking about. He had fallen asleep after their lunch break. He looked disoriented, like he wasn’t used to waking in places other than his room. He watched Gabriel float back and forth across the room.
“You found it, Brother?” asked Alex, stifling a yawn. He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand, then blinked rapidly.
After hours of searching, Gabriel had found what he needed. “Yes, this is it. It’s a detailed listing of crimes against Isten, and their respective punishments.” He flipped a page to read the other side, then flipped it back. “This is enough to stop Jequn.”
Gabriel crossed the room again as he read, stepping lightly across a bench before taking to the air again. He kicked off the wall on the other side of the room, crossing back. He never bothered looking up from the book.
“What does it say?” asked Alex, sitting on the floor, tugging nervously at his hair.
“It says, well, I’ll just read it to you,” said Gabriel. He stood precariously on the edge of a stool, wings fanning the air behind him as he read the following passage:
As we rely upon the Isten for our history and knowledge, we so entrust our future to our ancient guardians. Though they walk among the cities of Ahn as our equals, we revere their presence as a paragon of righteousness. Therefore, any violation against the Isten, their progeny, or their estates will result in a swift arraignment with a prompt resolution. For all cases involving Isten, the maximum penalty applicable will be enforced.
Maximum fine paid to the estate of the prevailing Isten.
For all instances when the honor or integrity of an Isten is besmirched.
Theft, damage, or destruction of property resulting in a monetary loss to the estate of the Isten, including from the result of deception or forgery.
Assault of an Isten resulting in bodily damage, without proven intent to kill.
Abduction of an Isten or their progeny.
Assault or physical abuse of any minor descendant of an Isten, through six generations.
Assault resulting in bodily damage, with proven intent to kill.
Instances of non-consensual sexual contact and molestation. Increased fines in cases involving minors.
Assassination of an Isten, involuntarily or through indirect action without a proven premeditated intent to kill.
Premeditated assassination of an Isten.
Crimes against Isten resulting in the endangerment of Ahn.
Isten, Heirs who have come of age, and three generations of direct descendants are given the same rights and privileges as the Isten. All spouses and servants are property of an Isten, and their removal or destruction is considered a fineable theft from the estate.
*Noted: Black is an archaic level often omitted in favor of a judicial execution.
Gabriel held the book out triumphantly. “See?”
Alex started to agree, but stopped and quickly shook his head. “I’m sorry, Brother. I don’t.”
With a quick flutter of his wings, Gabriel hopped from the stool. He landed gracefully beside Alex. “Our father is an Isten, right?”
“And you and I are his direct descendants. As his sons, or progeny as this calls us, we receive the same rights he does. And it states right here under Rust that what he is doing to you is illegal.”
“Rust…” Alex said the word slowly, like something about it bothered him.
“I think it’s a reference to the level of punishment,” Gabriel explained. “To make cross referencing easier. There’s probably a whole series of books that go into the details of various punishments.” He shrugged and sat down beside Alex. “I just don’t have access to them.”
Gabriel was thrilled. He had done it. He grinned at Alex, and after a moment, Alex smiled back at him. The little boy still looked uncertain, though.
“I told you I could do it,” said Gabriel. “You’ve got to trust me.”
“I do, Brother,” said Alex.
Ruffling Alex’s hair, Gabriel said, “Let’s get these useless books back up into my chambers. We’ve got what we need now.”
“Yes, Brother.” Alex started collecting scrolls while Gabriel gathered the tomes and books. They were on their third trip up the stairs when they both heard a door close, then feather-light footsteps coming from Liliel’s rooms.
“Mother is home,” said Gabriel enthusiastically. Alex didn’t look like he shared the sentiment.
Liliel emerged from her chambers while Gabriel and Alex gathered the last few books and scrolls to return to Gabriel’s library. She fluttered lightly down the stairs and paused in the dining room. She daintily came toward the foyer.
“My darling Gabriel,” she called out. “Are you in there?”
“Yes, Mother,” Gabriel called back. “We’re in here.”
The graceful Liliel stopped, flat footed, in the connecting archway. Her wings faltered for a moment, before resuming a slow flutter. “Oh, my. Whatever are you doing in here with all these books, and… your brother.” She gave Alex a look that made the young boy turn away and hide behind his hair.
“Mother, I am doing research.”
“Research?” she asked, attention returning to Gabriel. “A project for the academy, I suppose? You know, at a recent gathering, I spoke with Hesediel, whose third cousin is an instructor at Archridge, and she said that you are doing quite well. Very popular amongst your peers. I even hear there may be a few young Terran who have their eye on you.” Liliel smiled. “Of course, I expected as much. You inherited much of my grace and beauty. Just remember, though you may amuse yourself with whomever you wish, marriage is only an option with a girl of proper breeding and prestige.”
“Mother!” said Gabriel, heat rising to his cheeks in embarrassment. “I’m not going to marry a girl! I don’t even like girls-”
“Oh, darling. You don’t have to like them. You just have to breed one.” She gave him a little smile. “When the time comes of course.” Liliel stepped into the room, tiptoeing across the floor. Her fingers trailed over the top of a low cabinet where fresh flowers were displayed in a vase.
There was nothing Gabriel could say to change her mind, so he tried to guide the subject back to what was important. “And no, this isn’t research for a project at the academy. I am looking into the laws of Ahn.”
“Laws?” Liliel puffed dismissively. “Why would you be looking up something as dismal as that?”
Gabriel straightened, holding his chin up and flexing his wings. “I know what Father is doing to Alex, and I’m going to stop it.”
The vase Liliel had been examining toppled, crashing to the floor. Water and cut flowers lay among the broken glass. She spun toward Gabriel, eyes wide. “What? Oh no, no, no, no. Oh, my darling boy. What are you thinking?” She smoothly flew across the room to him. The light dress and her blond hair drifted around them, fanned by her wings. She gently touched his cheeks with her fingertips. “You cannot oppose him.”
“Of course I can. I can’t let him keep hurting Alex. I won’t let him hurt you either.” Gabriel reached up and cupped her hand in his, pressing it against his cheek. “I’ll protect you both. You don’t have to be scared.”
Liliel looked at him sadly. “My darling boy. You don’t understand.”
“I do understand.” He stepped away from her, picking up the book that held the laws against Isten. “See here,” he said, opening to the page. “These laws cover Isten and their descendants. Alex and I are protected by these laws, even against him. If I tell anyone-”
Liliel snapped the book shut. “Gabriel. There is something that I must tell you. I thought it would be okay, that you would never need to know, but I see that isn’t possible anymore.” She motioned to the pillows on the floor. “Sit, please, and listen to me.”
Clutching the book to his chest, Gabriel took a step back. Liliel sat on one of the taller stools, crossed her bare ankles, and stilled her wings behind her. She looked picturesque, serene, but her overly calm expression made Gabriel feel tense.
“Please, this is for both of you,” said Liliel, looking to Alex. “It is time you heard this, too, Alexiel.”
Slowly, Alex approached. He wouldn’t lift his head. He just started down at the ground as he knelt on the cushions before their mother.
“What is this about?” Gabriel demanded, the unease rising in him.
“It is about you both, and me. And your father, as many things often are.” She held her hand out, a practiced motion as if she were simply inviting him to sit at dining table during a banquet.
Begrudgingly, Gabriel crossed his legs and lowered himself to the floor. He held the book tightly in his hands, resting it in his lap.
With a soft smile, Liliel began, speaking with a leisurely lilt. “I was born from a long line of Terran who were specifically bred to be a match for Lord Jequn. I married him when I was thirteen. He was my destiny.” She shook her head, soft curls floating about her face. “I was scared, but he was a doting husband, more than any girl could hope for. He even painted the ceiling over my bed to match the positions of the stars in the sky from the first night we were together.” She paused sadly, like there was a heavy weight on her chest. She licked her soft pink lips, and continued in a soft voice. “You, Gabriel, were born a year later.”
“What does this have to do with-”
“Gabriel, please just listen. This is going to be hard enough to tell you without you interrupting,” scolded their mother.
Sullenly, Gabriel remained quiet. He glanced over at Alex, who hadn’t moved a muscle since he sat down. His little fingers, tipped in gray nails, dug into the fabric covering his legs. With his head lowered, his black hair hung in a solid sheet that hid his face.
“After you were born, your father’s interest in me faded. He had his heir, he had done his duty. He became distant. I tried my best to raise you, but I was so lonely.” Liliel looked down at her hands. “I started attending social events even when your father was unavailable. Before long, he stopped coming, even if he was available. I would go, make an appearance for both of us, and he was free to spend his time as he wished, away from people.”
She clasped her hands tightly in her lap. “That’s when I met him. I was almost seventeen. It was a grand ball. He was charming, and sweet, and kind, and I fell in love.”
The book in Gabriel’s lap felt heavier. He blinked, staring up at his mother. The pit of his stomach felt numb as he struggled to understand her words.
“Over the following six months, we met at every event possible. As much as I loved him, he loved me more. He wanted to marry me. He said he could take me away from everything, even out of E’din. But…” Liliel turned her head away from her sons, looking out the foyer. “I couldn’t abandon my responsibilities as the wife of an Isten.
“I came home. I never spoke to him again. I tried to devote myself to Jequn, but he had changed while I was preoccupied with all the social obligations. His previous attitude was a front to keep me and other Isten appeased. He no longer felt the need to act, and I quickly discovered just how distorted his affections could be.”
Gabriel’s fingernails dug into the cover of the book. “He hurt you?”
“Not intentionally. But he had tendencies to be aggressive. Easily angered. I did all that I could to make him happy. I had to, because soon after, Alexiel was born.” She looked toward Alex, her pale blue eyes sad. He didn’t look up. “When you were born, there was a lot of concern over your hair color. It was decided, even with carefully selected breeding, that my genetics were at fault. A century old dormant trait had risen. You still had our blue eyes, and so, it was settled, and Jequn thought nothing else of it.
“For a year, we were a happy family. I still attended the social gatherings, for both myself and Jequn, but only when necessary. I thought I could put it all behind me no one would ever need to know.” Liliel licked her lips again, and closed her eyes. “Then you started attending the academy. I tried to occupy myself, caring for Alexiel, but it wasn’t enough.
“I started accepting more invitations to events and gatherings. By the time you were in your second year at the academy, I was fully immersed in that world. I connected with others there, and stopped feeling so alone. I wouldn’t call it love, but what I’ve found fulfills me. But Jequn found out about the affair.”
Clenching his teeth, Gabriel said, “How did you ever think you could hide that from him?”
“I was young. Blind to my faults.” Liliel’s pale eyebrows scrunched together. “We all make mistakes in our youth that we regret. And when my husband found out, he was furious. He could have killed me, and probably would have, if he hadn’t realized the truth.”
“Truth?” asked Gabriel, growing frustrated. “What truth?”
Ignoring his question, Liliel continued. “He offered me a deal. He would let me live. I could continue my ways, keeping up the pretenses of our union. In return, I would give him Alexiel.”
“You bargained over the life of your child?” snarled Gabriel. He felt angry and confused. How could Liliel, his sweet, dainty, perfect mother, be saying anything like this?
“You still don’t understand?” Liliel shook her head. “I had to make the deal. If I didn’t, Jequn would have killed both me and Alexiel. I did it to save us both.”
Alex raised his head and looked directly up at Liliel with emotionless black eyes. “Jequn isn’t my father, is he?”
Liliel looked down at her black haired son. “No, he isn’t. You are nothing more than the illegitimate child of a Terran, and it is well within his rights as an Isten to claim you as a servant of his household. I did everything I could to protect you-”
“Protect him!?” Gabriel jumped to his feet. “Alex is being poisoned and raped.”
Liliel looked disappointed by Gabriel’s outburst. “Your father may have his peculiarities, but I think he loves Alexiel, in his own way. This is for the best. For all of us.”
“No, this is only best for you,” said Gabriel angrily. “I’m going to stop it. I’m going to stop him, and I’m going to stop you.”
“You can’t,” Liliel said with finality. “Don’t you understand? He is an Isten. You are his heir and will one day be nearly as powerful as him. I am his wife. I will be taken care of until the day I die.” She looked down at Alex with a wistful pout to her pink lips. “And Alexiel will grow up at Jequn’s side, rather than as a servant to be disposed of. As long as no one else finds out about Alexiel’s true parentage, he will remain the privileged child of an Isten until the day he dies.”
“No. This is all wrong. You should have stopped it. You should have-”
“What should I have done, my darling boy? Taken my youngest child and fled beyond E’din? Told the authorities? Admitted to my affair? I would have been killed, and Alexiel would have been disposed of. Such disgrace of an Isten is unheard of.”
Liliel cast her gaze from her silver haired son, the heir of an Isten, to her black haired son, the ill-fated child of an affair. Gabriel looked angry, as she expected him to, but Alex just looked empty. She looked away in disgust.
“You can try what you want, but you will not succeed. My Lord husband is powerful, and he is cruel. You will only bring pain to yourself and your brother.” She stood up, moving away from Gabriel and Alex with a little flutter of her fluffy white wings.
Alex slowly got to his feet. He kept his wings pressed tight against his back, so the movement looked awkward. He watched Liliel move away from them. As she reached the cabinet beside the broken vase, he said, “Mother?”
She turned back toward him, but her eyes stayed on Gabriel. “Yes, Alexiel?”
“Who is my father?”
“If you want to keep living, you will keep Jequn in your heart as your father.”
“Who was he really,” asked Gabriel. He scowled at her grimly, and resembled Jequn more than ever in that moment.
Liliel sighed. “He was just a man. Black hair and blue eyes. He attended gatherings as a ward of some magistrate. He was no one important.”
“That I will not share, for your safety and my own.”
“Was he Terran or Ahnnak?”
Liliel gave Gabriel a little smirk. “Darling, I do not know. He had wings, but we spent much of our time pursuing other activities rather than discussing our lineage.” She brushed her hands over her light dress, as if smoothing away wrinkles. “Now, I see that my presence will be unnecessary over the coming days. I have an event to attend, and I will return later, once your father has put a stop to this silly rebellion.”
Gabriel bristled. “How can you dismiss us so easily?”
“My darling boy, you are just too young to understand how the world works. You will thank me for all my sacrifices when you are older.” She even turned and gave Alex a weak smile. “This is all truly for your benefit.”
Alex turned away, body rigid.
Gabriel glared at his mother. She walked away from them, dainty white wings carrying her lightly across the floor. She floated up the stairs, prepared to leave even after her short visit.
“Good. Fine. We don’t need her,” Gabriel spat. His chest felt hot and his mind felt numb. He still couldn’t bring himself to believe it. He turned toward Alex and reached out to touch his shoulder. The black haired boy flinched away at the light touch. “Alex…”
“Yes, Br- Gabriel?”
“No, Alex, don’t do that,” pleaded Gabriel. His heart felt heavy. “Even if it’s true, we’re still brothers. This doesn’t change anything.”
Alex moved away from Gabriel. “I’m sorry. I need to be alone for a while.” Before Gabriel could respond, the little boy was walking through the cloth hanging in the archways of the foyer.
Alex jumped off the porch, walking faster and faster. He started running, tugging his clothing up higher as he raced to the jungle edge. Gabriel only watched, holding the once prized book to his chest.
To his right, he heard the quick flutter of his mother’s wings as she took to the sky, soaring toward the distant river where the honeysuckle grew. He wondered if she would meet a lover there, and wondered how many times before it had happened.
The jungle enveloped Alex. Gabriel knew where the little boy would go now, and he didn’t feel the same apprehension as he had before. Alex was as safe in the jungle as he was in the manor, if not more so.
Gabriel looked down at the book. He had been so close to saving him. He couldn’t give up. He still had to try.
Determined, Gabriel stormed upstairs. He was going to the library to study. But this time, at the top of the stairs, rather than turning right toward his own rooms, Gabriel turned left. He marched purposefully down the main hall, shoved aside the veil, and entered Jequn’s chambers.