The Seventh Chance (Crystalline Melodies #1)

In the Taeran Empire, magic is commonplace. But in some rare cases, you don't use magic: it uses you. Krystal is an ex-slave turned fugitive with a deadly curse and a tendency to leave a trail of bodies wherever she goes. Nikora is an orphan with a history of mysterious familial deaths and a rather intimidating grandfather. Aaren is a healer living in destitute who has an axe to grind with the government and a dark secret of his own. As ancient prophecy dictates, each is as important as the last. Collectively, they know things that could bring down their entire social structure and plunge the empire into civil war: and someone wants them dead. Even as they fight for their freedom and survival, the nature of this danger begins to reveal itself, and it's worse than any of them could have imagined. War is brewing. Free will is a privilege. Death is not final. Nothing is as it seems. Welcome to the Taeran Empire.

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3. 3. [Past]: Fever

Have you ever just sat there, curled up in a ball for so long you thought your spine had fused that way, praying over and over that you were just dreaming? No? Good, you wouldn't like it. I sure didn't.

I don't remember waking up. Not definitively, anyway. It's like I woke up over a period of hours, or maybe days. The first time I was truly coherent, I remember my head resting on Aria's lap, and a startling and horrible stench grabbing my full attention. Like urine and feces. Maybe both. My face scrunched up in disgust before I'd even opened my eyes, and that wasn't exactly the greatest invitation to, either.

But I did sit up. And when I did, I did so quickly. That was a bad idea, as I immediately felt lightheaded.

"Hey," Aria rested her hand on my shoulder as if to steady me, "don't get up too quickly."

I heeded her advice by scooting back up against the wall she was leaning against, letting my head fall back. I coughed a little, but that did nothing to expel the horrid stench I'd been inhaling.

"What... what is that... that smell?"

Aria grimaced. "It's what you think it is."

I looked up at her in disbelief before shaking my head and surveying the room for the first time. It wasn't either large or small, but it was definitely not big enough to hold all the people stuffed inside. There was one corner that nobody was sitting in, and craning my neck to get a good view of it, I realized why.

"They... there's no bathroom?!"

She scoffed bitterly. "Nope."

I did not like that. At all.

But my next natural thought progression was: why is there no bathroom?

I redid my room survey. It was entirely different this time around, as my mind was beginning to wake up again. The room was cram-packed with people: all people from the freighter. And only the younger people.

I turned my head slowly, so slowly, to Aria, as if to setup my asking the question neither of us wanted to deal with: "Where... Aria, where's Mum?"

I could see the muscles of her jaw and neck tighten before she looked away, and that in itself was enough to make my imagination run wild.

"Aria? Tell me. Did they...? Is she...?"

Aria shook her head. "I... I don't know."

I stared at her, urging her to continue.

She sighed, dejected. "They... after you man--... after you passed out, they continued dividing people up by age... I don't... I don't think they took anyone over maybe twenty-five..."

I closed my eyes and tried to process this, failing rather miserably.

"I... I don't know what they did with who they didn't take, though..."

A terrifying image played in my mind, of the freighter burning and sinking in the middle of the ocean with the remaining passengers still on board. I couldn't breathe.

Aria scooted over and wrapped her arm around me tightly, burying my face in her coat. And I cried. Not loudly, but I definitely cried. I cried so much and so long that I was asleep again before long.

####

When I awoke again, I felt rather empty. It was a new feeling for me. I never had a lot in life, but I always had enough. I had Aria. And I had Mum. I'd never even considered life without one of them.

'Stop thinking like that,' I scolded myself. 'She's alive. You and Aria will escape. You'll get home. You'll be alright.' Somehow, those thoughts only terrified me even more. Probably because I knew how false they were.

"Here."

I looked up, startled from my musings. Aria was holding out a small metal cup filled with a strange looking liquid. My expression crinkled again. "What's this?"

"Water."

Looking at the liquid in the cup, I would have guessed lake water, not drinking water. But glancing around the room, I noticed everyone else was drinking it... No normal water in sight.

Reluctantly, I sipped at the stuff, forcing myself to swallow rather than spit it out again. Aria grimaced sympathetically. "Yeah... Not the greatest stuff. But it's been a couple days. Some water is better than none."

'Days.' It feels like only hours. But at the same time, months.

Next, she hands me bread. It's quality level isn't much better, but I make no complaint. It'd be absurd to make a scene over it in our situation. Besides: I'm hungry.

"Hey, hey. Slow down," Aria whispered, placing a comforting hand on my back. "If you draw out the food, it'll fill you up more in the long run."

I was almost too hungry to pay attention at all, but her words made sense, so I managed to wait a few seconds between each bite instead of stuffing the whole block into my mouth all at once.

Aria smiled sadly and again passed me the small metal cup of dirty water as I licked the dry crumbs off my fingers. I nearly drank the whole thing down before remembering that it was a shared cup. I handed it back to her. "You should have some, too," I muttered, my throat and tongue too dry to really form the words very well.

She shook her head and pushed it back into my hands. "You're sick," she said. "You need it much more than I do. I'll be fine."

Following the pretty pathetic meal were many days of much the same. No variation whatsoever. Eat, sleep, and wait. The corner dedicated to defecation only continued to become more and more repulsive. I preferred to just not think about it.

But I suppose that was their goal.

Every time one of the "pirates" would walk in, I'd start shaking with rage, and Aria would have to physically force me to not rip his throat out. But what really infuriated me was the look in his eyes. He'd toss the sack of food into the middle of the mass and grin as our neighbors would rush into the mess and nearly claw each other's eyes out over the scant rations. The first few times, I was too sick to move much, and Aria was too momentarily timid to make a serious attempt at getting anything. I'd forgotten about her gunshot wound, but that was probably what kept her from fighting for food the most.

"We'll go with what's left," she'd say. As if the abductees on a pirate ship would have a sense of moral code or something, right? Wrong.

It was like watching a pack of wild dogs. The second law of the oppressed life: every man — and woman — for themselves. Survival of the fittest. Or in our case, the fastest. Within a couple days, even Aria was leaping into the fray, despite her shoulder, pushing people out of the way to get to the food. And it killed me that their psychological games could push her so far as to engage in it. To turn us into something no better than animals. She probably would not have done it all, if not for me. Afterwards, I could always see the pain and conflict behind her troubled eyes: we shouldn't have had to do this. Seventeen and twelve-year-old sisters, huddled in the corner, clinging to each other for dear old sanity. It was the real and true personification of a nightmare.

The kidnappers, however, seemed to get quite a good lot of enjoyment out of us. I'd see one of them come in and grab one of us — we were mostly girls — and drag her out, shaking and whimpering pitifully. It could have been anyone. The ten-year-old in the middle, the twenty-seven-year-old in the back. When they left, they never came back.

Aria would use things she'd learned or read about to help us. Her nahir manifestation was the abstract type: intuitive aptitude. She absorbed information much faster than I or any normal person might. So I tended to trust her judgement. She knew some things about how to remain inconspicuous; how to hide in plain sight.

"People have a tendency to look first at the left closer middle," she'd say. "It's best to therefore be in the right further middle. Take off any super bright or dark clothing. Don't make specific eye contact with anyone — especially not the abductors, as they would see it as a challenge — but don't stare at anything obvious like the floor or ceiling. Don't sit perfectly still. Statues are conspicuous. Move a little, but not too much: keep your movements natural. Keep your expression from conveying too much emotion. Also, be careful what emotion you convey. Your expression could make you stand out. Remember the second girl they took? She was smiling at her friend when they did. Everyone else was miserable and afraid. So she stood out. And the fourth one? She froze with fear, and looked more terrified than anyone else."

Most of that went completely over my head.

She paused, considering her words carefully. "These men prey on that: they look for the weakest, and the ones who have the farthest to fall. If you are neither of those, then you will survive. Do you understand?"

I did. I was confused and kinda scared, but I did.

We went on like this for several more days. Aria and I would spend time engaging in completely pointless topics of conversation, just to help me get more comfortable with speaking. I'd always been pretty quiet, but I guess even then, the both of us had a sense of all the bad things that would ensue so soon after. Of how much we needed to prepare. We'd play pointless games to pass the time, or Aria would dig into our bags and pull out books to read aloud to me. Aria told me that soon after I'd passed out, the men had gone through all the passengers' bags, looting them of possible weapons and anything that looked even vaguely valuable. Luckily, our school textbooks, fiction stories, clothes, and photo album hadn't been categorized as worthwhile. Aria even managed to hide a small knife from them, and kept it stored safely in the bottom of her shoe. It's for that reason I wondered why they didn't just take the bags altogether.

"What are they going to do with us?" I asked once.

She just continued to stare at the wall, expressionless. "I don't know."

My eyes narrowed, and I struggled to keep from getting angry. "Just because you're older than me doesn't mean you can just lie to me like that."

Aria turned to look at me. We looked at each other for a long time: far past uncomfortable. I wouldn't back down, though; I needed to know. If there was anything that I hated more than being held captive, it was being kept in the dark.

"Aria, can you promise me something?"

"What?"

"Promise me you won't keep secrets from me. Not anymore. Not knowing is too scary. I'd rather be freaked out by real stuff than be scared by my imagination."

Her expression softened, and she hugged me tightly. "I won't. I'm sorry. I don't know for sure where they want to take us, but I think... I think they want to take us to a sort of work camp."

"You mean slavery?"

She looked a bit surprised. "Sla-- I... yes."

I just nodded. I understood full and well what that meant. Only the very rich had anything resembling slaves. Actual slavery was illegal. But hey, so was piracy... doesn't stop it from happening.

Still, the situation itself was so horrible, so terrifying, so mysterious, that I could hardly handle it. The atmosphere of the place was so hopeless and helpless, it was like a room so hot and stuffy you felt as if your chest was being squeezed and your heart twisted. Pressing in from all sides, the depression nearly made me give up.

It just hurt.

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