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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
The Houses of the Zodiac Galaxy
WHEN I THINK OF MOM, I think of the day she abandoned us. There are dozens of memories that still haunt me, but that one always shoves its way to the surface first, submerging all other thoughts with its power.
I remember knowing something was wrong when Helios’s rays—and not Mom’s whistle—roused me. Every day, I’d awoken to the low-pitched call of the black seashell Dad had found for Mom on their first date; she kept it buried in her hair, pinning up her long locks, and plucked it out only for our daily drills.
But this morning dawned unannounced. I clambered out of bed, changed into my school uniform, and searched the bungalow for my parents.
The first person I spotted was Stanton. He was in his room across the hall, one side of his face glued to the wall. “Why are you—?”
“Shhh.” He pointed to the crack in the sand-and-seashell wall through which he could listen into our parents’ room. “Something’s up,” he mouthed.
I dutifully froze and awaited my big brother’s next cue. Stanton was ten, so he attended school on a pod city with our neighbor, Jewel Belger. Her mom would arrive any moment to pick him up, and Stanton was still in his nightclothes.
The seconds of silence were agony, during which I imagined every possible scenario, from Mom being diagnosed with a deadly disease to Dad discovering a priceless pearl that would make us rich. When at last Stan backed away from the crack, he pulled me into the hallway with him right as Mom barreled out from her bedroom.
“Stanton, come with me, please,” she said as she strode past. Lately whenever she and Dad fought, she sought solace in my brother. He eagerly bounded behind her, and though I longed to follow, I knew she wouldn’t approve. If she wanted me there, she would have said so.
I looked out through one of the bungalow’s many windows as Mom led Stan into the crystal reading room Dad had built for her on the banks of the inner lagoon near his nar-clams; a miniature version of the crystal dome on Elara, it fit three people at most. I’d watch Mom go in there every night, her figure blurring into misty shadow behind the thick walls as she read her Ephemeris in the starlight.
A small schooner pulled up to our dock, and Jewel jumped out, her frizzy curls blowing in the salty breeze. As she ran to our front door, Dad’s footsteps slapped down the stairs to meet her. I padded softly after him and hung on the staircase landing to listen.
Dad traded the hand touch with Jewel and waved to Mrs. Belger in the distance. “Stan isn’t going in today,” he said as Mrs. Belger honked back a greeting from her schooner.
“Oh,” said Jewel, sounding supremely disappointed. “Is he sick?”
I crept out a little farther from behind the banister, and Jewel’s piercing periwinkle eyes flashed to me. Her chestnut cheeks darkened, and she looked away, either from shyness or to keep Dad from noticing I was there.
“A little,” said Dad.
I nearly gasped in shock—I’d never heard one of my parents tell a lie before. Cancrians don’t deceive.
“Can I . . . can you tell him I hope he gets better?”
I stared at the back of Dad’s prematurely balding head as he nodded. “I will. Have a good day at school, Jewel.” As he waved again to Mrs. Belger, I soundlessly slipped behind him and went out a side door.
Tracing the outer walls of our bungalow, I found Jewel waiting for me by a small pond of water lilies that Mom tended to so much, she always smelled of them.
“Is Stanton okay?” she blurted as I came closer. Her skin flushed darker in embarrassment again.
“Yeah,” I said, shrugging.
“He told me your parents are fighting a lot. . . .” She let her sentence hang gently between us, an invitation to talk to her as a friend, even though I was only seven and she was Stanton’s age. Her attention made me feel important, so I wanted to share something special—a secret.
“Stanton’s not really sick. He’s with my mom. She and my dad just fought.”
This seemed to mean more to Jewel than me, because her chestnut features pulled together with concern, and she said, “I don’t think it’s good for him . . . being brought into their arguments. I think it’s making him old.”
Then she ran off to her mom’s schooner, and as they sailed away, Jewel’s face pressed into the glass window, staring back longingly at our bungalow. Her words worried me, even if I didn’t fully get their meaning, and I looked toward the crystal reading room, wondering.
I found myself moving closer to the place, the thick sparkly walls reflecting me in the sunlight instead of illuminating what was going on inside. I edged around it, careful to stay low in case Mom or Stanton looked out, and then I peeked in, cupping my eyes and squinting so I could see.
Stanton had just received his first Wave at school, and he was sitting on the reading room’s floor, recording information into it. Mom had switched on her Ephemeris, and she was orbiting the space while rattling words off to Stanton, words I couldn’t hear.
I took a chance and opened the door a crack, as slowly and carefully as possible.
“After you’ve cleaned the three changelings, toss them on the griller with a sprinkling of sea salt and sweet-water honeysuckles from the garden. I think that should be plenty of recipes. Let’s move on to Rho’s morning drills.”
“Mom, but why are you telling me this?” Stanton spoke in the whiny tone of repetition. Even though he sounded unhappy, his fingers obediently ticked away on his Wave’s holographic screen, logging the information.
“I like to wake Rho three hours early with rapid-fire drills about the Houses,” continued Mom, as though Stanton hadn’t interrupted. “After cycling through all twelve Yarrot poses, she must Center herself and commune with the stars for at least one hour—”
Mom stopped speaking suddenly, and every molecule of my being liquefied beneath her glacial glare. Through the sliver of a gap in the doorway, she was staring straight at me.
The door swept inward, and I nearly fell inside. Scrambling upright, I snuck a quick glance at my brother, who was looking from Mom to me with bated breath. I braced myself for Mom’s fury at my eavesdropping—only she didn’t look upset.
“You should be on your way to class, Rho.” She searched behind me for a sign of Dad. I turned, too, but he was still inside the bungalow. When I looked back at Mom, she wore the same intense stare I’d seen on her face a week ago, when she warned me my fears were real.
They certainly felt real in that moment. Every fearful possibility I’d dreaded earlier swam in my head once more, and I wondered what could have made Mom decide to dictate the details of her daily life to Stanton. Something was happening—something awful. My gut churned and sizzled, like I’d eaten too much sugared seaweed at once, and I couldn’t stand the not-knowing.
Mom reached out and caressed my face, her touch more whisper than words. “Your teachers are wrong, you know.” It was one of her favorite phrases. “There aren’t twelve types of people in the universe—there are two.” She stared at the pearl necklace on my chest, which I hadn’t taken off all week. Cancer’s pearl wasn’t centered, but for the first time, she didn’t reach out to adjust it. “The ones that stand still and try to fit in . . . and the ones that go seek out where they belong.”
That’s the last thing my mother ever said to me. When Dad sailed me to school that morning on the Strider—late—neither of us knew he would return to find Mom gone.
Dad lived life mostly inside his head, so he wasn’t a big talker. But that morning he broke our usual silence by saying, “Rho . . . your mom and I love you very much. If we argue, it has nothing to do with you or your brother. You know that?”
I nodded. He was speaking softly, in the comforting tone he always adopted post-fight. So I took a chance. “Dad . . . why did you lie to Jewel? What’s really happening with Stanton and Mom?”
I could see from Dad’s face he would rather not answer, but he was always more forthcoming post-fight. With a slight sigh, he said, “I shouldn’t have lied, Rho. I’m sorry you heard that. I’m also sorry I can’t give you an answer, because I don’t have one. You know how your mom is . . . she’s having a spell. She’ll be fine when you get home.”
It was then I understood what Jewel meant about too much information making someone old. I wanted to believe Dad—to push off the doubt and worry and the queasiness in my stomach that still hadn’t gone away. But the absence of the black seashell’s song that morning felt more like an omen.
Mom was right.
(She usually was.)
Fears are real.
TWELVE FLAGS, EACH BEARING THE symbol of a Zodiac House, lie in tatters before me, on a barren field that extends endlessly in every direction.
I can just make out a crest neatly sewn beneath each House name—a dark blue Crab, a royal purple Lion, an inky black Scorpion. Caked in blood and grime, the defeated fabrics sprawl across the lifeless land like corpses from a forgotten battle.
There are no sounds; nothing moves in the dusty distance. Even the sky is devoid of expression—it’s just a constant colorless expanse. But the stillness in the air is far from calm. It feels like the day is holding its breath.
I turn in a small circle to survey my surroundings, and in the eastern distance I see a steep hill that’s the only disruption to the flat landscape. I concentrate hard on the hill, envisioning myself cresting it to survey the valley below, and soon my view begins to transform. As the vast valley sharpens into focus, I choke on a horrified gasp—
Thousands of dead bodies litter the powdery earth below, their uniforms a rainbow of colors. Like a gruesome quilt made from people parts.
I slump to the floor, nearly crushing the glass orb in my hand, and shut my eyes, forgetting that nightmares thrive in darkness. Corpses crowd my view in here, too.
Hundreds of frozen Cancrian teens in flashy suits float through the black space of my mind, forever suspended there. I shake my head, and the vision flips to Virgo’s ships going up in flames, the air almost thick with the stench of burning flesh and metal.
Then the tiny burned bodies of the once-lively Geminin people.
The wreckage of vessels from what was once our united armada.
I suck in a ragged breath as the next picture forms: the familiar wavy black locks, alabaster face, indigo blue—
My eyes snap open, and I squeeze the glowing glass orb in my fist. The valley of bodies vanishes as the sights and sounds of reality rush into my head, as if I’ve just broken the sea’s surface after a deep dive.
The barren field has transformed back into a large, sterile room lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves that house hundreds of thousands of identical glass orbs. They’re called Snow Globes, and each one stores a re-creation of a moment in time.
I replace the memory I was just reviewing in its spot on the shelf:
Sage Huxler’s recollections
After a moment, the orb’s white light dims out.
I’ve been coming to Membrex 1206 for two weeks, combing through House Capricorn’s memories of the Trinary Axis, searching for answers to any of my millions of questions. I’m desperate for any signs that could lead me to Ophiuchus, or help us defeat the Marad, or bring back hope to the Zodiac.
So far, I’ve found none of the above.
My Wave buzzes on the table, and I snap it open, anxious for news. A twenty-year-old guy with my identical blond curls, sun-kissed skin, and pale green eyes beams his hologram into the room.
“Rho—where are you?”
Stanton looks confusedly at the Membrex (a room outfitted with the technology to unlock Snow Globes) surrounding us. He’s wearing his wet suit and squinting against Helios’s rays, so he must still be at the beach helping out.
“I’m in the Zodiax . . . just looking something up.”
I haven’t told my brother what I’m really up to here—deep within the earth of House Capricorn’s sole planet, Tierre—while he volunteers at the Cancrian settlement on the surface. “Any sign of his ship yet?” I ask before I can stop myself.
“Like I told you twelve times this hour, I’ll let you know when he’s here. You shouldn’t worry so much.” Stanton looks like he wants to say more, but he glances off to the side, to something happening on the beach. “Gotta go; last ark of the day’s just dropped off more crates. When are you heading over?”
“On my way.” Capricorns have been shuttling our people back and forth from here to Cancer on their arks, braving the planet’s stormy surface to save our world’s wildlife. The Cancrians on the settlement have been helping our species adapt to Tierre’s smaller ocean.
Stanton’s hologram winks out, and I pull up the ledger on my Wave where I’ve been keeping track of the Snow Globes I’ve examined, and input today’s updates. To exit the room, I pass through a biometric body scan that ensures the only memories I’m taking with me are my own.
Out in the dimly lit passage, I brush my hand along the smooth stone wall until my fingers close on a square metal latch. I pull on it to open a hidden door, and when I slip through, the ground falls away.
My stomach tickles as I glide down a steep, narrow tube that shoots me out onto the springy floor of a train platform. Its bounciness reminds me of my drum mat, except this one’s riddled with rows of symmetrical circles that light up either red or green, depending on whether that spot on the train is available.
I stand inside one of the green circles, and almost immediately there’s a rush of wind and the hissing of pistons beneath my feet—then the circle I’m standing on opens.
A gust of air pressure sucks me down, and I’ve tapped into the Vein, the train system that tunnels through the Zodiax.
“Zodiac art from the first millennium,” announces a cool female voice. I grab onto the handrail above me as the wind changes direction, and a stray curl falls into my face as we shoot upward.
The Zodiax is an underground vault that contains what the Tenth House calls a treasure trove of truths: the collective wisdom of the Zodiac. Down here, there are museums, galleries, theaters, Membrexes, auditoriums, restaurants, reading rooms, research labs, hotels, shopping malls, and more. When Mom described it to me once, she said the Zodiax is like a brain, and the Vein is its neuron network, zooming people around as fast as firing synapses, its route mapped by subject matter rather than geography.
A couple of Capricorn women in black robes share my compartment—one is tall with dark features, the other short with a ruddy complexion. We slow down for half a moment at “Notable Zodai from this century,” and the smaller woman is sucked up to a train platform.
“Surface, Cancrian settlement.”
I click a button on the handrail and let go. I’m blown up to the bouncy bed of another train station, and biometric body scans search me again as I leave the Zodiax.
Outside, I instinctively raise a hand to shield my eyes from Helios’s light. Echoing silence is instantly replaced with the sounds of crashing waves and animal calls and distant conversations. As my vision adjusts, I make out herds of seagoats (House Capricorn’s sacred symbol) feeding and roughhousing at the water’s edge, and long-bodied terrasaurs flicking in and out of the rocks along the seashore, their scaly skin shiny in the daylight. High above us, horned hawks flap across the sun-bleached sky, circling the air in hopes of picking off the pocket pigs feeding in the weeds.
Tierre is the largest inhabited planet in our galaxy, and it has a single massive landmass, Verity. Up ahead, the planet’s pink sand beach spills into the blue of its ocean, and behind me, wild forests grow right up to the ridges of volcanoes, giving way in the distance to snowcapped mountains that pierce the sky. The view is occasionally interrupted by the long neck of a fluffy giraffe reaching up for a fresh tree leaf.
This place is a land lover’s paradise—which makes sense, given that Capricorn is a Cardinal House, representing the element Earth. People here live in modest homes on vast plots of land with multiple pets that live free-range.
Cancer’s colony is being built along Verity’s western coastline, our people predictably opting to settle near our preferred cardinal element, Water. As I walk into our settlement, clusters of Cancrians are working on their respective tasks. Some are building pink sand-and-seashell bungalows, some are chopping seafood for sushi on flat stones, and some—including Stanton—are knee-deep in the ocean wearing wet suits, tending to the newly arrived species. As I walk past each group of people, they don’t stare anymore. Not like they did at first.
A month ago, the Cancrians I met on Gemini insisted on my innocence and vowed the other Houses wouldn’t get away with this insult to Cancer. Then three weeks ago, we came to Capricorn, and the Cancrians here have barely spoken to me. Their glares and pointed silence have made it clear they’re not interested in my political failings—their sole concern is saving what’s left of our world.
I wade toward Stanton through a shallow sea of crawling hookcrabs, miniature sea horses, schools of flashing changelings (blue fish that turn red when they sense danger), and a few just-released baby crab-sharks. My brother is with Aryll, a seventeen-year-old Cancrian who came here with us from Gemini. They’re in the process of releasing another school of changelings into the ocean.
Rather than disturb them, I hang back and scour the sky for the telltale metallic glint of an approaching spaceship. It’s getting close to sunset. He should be here by now.
“You look nice today,” says Stanton, spotting me. Only he says it less like a compliment and more like a question. His gaze searches my turquoise dress for clues before landing back on the water.
Aryll turns, and his electric-blue eye roves over my outfit; a gray patch covers the spot where his left eye used to be. He flashes me a boyish smile before rearranging his expression into a Stanton-like look of disapproval. Even though I know he cares for us both, he takes my brother’s side on pretty much everything.
“It doesn’t matter, I can still help you guys.” I come closer, letting the bottom of my dress get wet to show Stanton I’m not fussy.
“Rho, don’t,” he says with a bite of impatience. “We’re nearly finished. Just hang back.”
I do as my brother says, watching as he and Aryll set the fish free. The changelings look radioactive, their fiery bodies staining the blue water red, but soon their coloring begins to cool, and they disappear into the ocean’s depths. Changelings, being small and low-maintenance, have had the easiest time adapting to Capricorn so far.
Stanton opens up the last closed crate floating beside him, and he and Aryll start releasing hookcrabs into the ocean. “That’s good, but watch for its pincers,” says Stanton, deftly taking the crab from Aryll before it snaps his finger off.
When he talks to Aryll, my brother sounds different than when he addresses me. With Aryll, his voice dips lower, adopting a comforting tone that’s painfully familiar. “See this part of the shell back here, where it curves in a little?” Aryll nods obediently. “That’s always the best place to grip them.”
Stanton’s words sweep me back to Kalymnos, where I learned how to handle the hookcrabs that constantly clawed at our nar-clams, and I realize who my brother is acting like. He’s being Dad.
It shouldn’t bother me. After all that’s happened, I should be mature and understanding and compassionate. I should be grateful my brother’s alive at all. Some people lost everything.
Aryll was at school on a Cancrian pod city when pieces of our moons started shooting through our planet’s atmosphere. The explosion took out his left eye. By the time he made it home, his whole family and house had drowned in the Cancer Sea. Like Stanton, he was herded together with other survivors and transported to House Gemini’s planet Hydragyr.
Then Ophiuchus attacked Gemini.
Earthquakes ransacked the rocky planet right as the Cancrian settlement was being built. Stanton was ushering a family to safety when he lost his balance and slipped off the rock face. Aryll caught him just as he was going over.
He saved my brother’s life.
“We’re going to change,” Stanton calls out as he and Aryll duck behind a privacy curtain to shed their wet suits.
I study the horizon again for a sign of the ship I’ve been anxiously awaiting all day. Ophiuchus hasn’t destroyed another planet since Argyr, but the Marad attacks a different House every week. The army has also been linked to pirate ships that have been intercepting travelers and inter-House supply shipments all across the galaxy. Zodai on every House are cautioning citizens to avoid Space travel, encouraging us to travel by holo-ghost whenever possible.
What if something’s happened? How will I know? Maybe I should try his Ring, just in case—
“There!” shouts Aryll, his red hair flickering like fire under Helios’s rays. He points to a dot in the sky.
My heart skips several beats as the dot zooms closer, sunlight catching its gleaming surface. The ship grows bigger on its approach, until the full form of the familiar bullet-shaped craft is visible.
Hysan is here at last.
’NOX LANDS ON A PLOT of pink sand far enough away not to disturb our camp. Stanton, Aryll, and I march toward the ship, and in the distance, Hysan’s golden figure leaps onto the beach, carrying a black case with him.
I exhale in relief, realizing as I do that I’ve been holding my breath since Hysan and I parted. In a way, I’ve been lonelier these past few weeks than I was our whole time on Equinox.
Hysan’s lips twist into his centaur smile as he approaches, and my mouth mirrors the movement effortlessly. I’d forgotten how relaxing a real smile could feel.
He looks taller, and his golden hair has outgrown its Zodai cut. The white streaks are gone, and so are the expensive clothes—he’s dressed in a simple gray space suit that he’s filling out with more muscle than I remember.
“My lady.” His lively, leaf-green eyes rest on my face and travel to my turquoise dress. “Memory did not do you justice.”
“You should have been here hours ago,” I say, the flush in my cheeks undercutting my rebuke.
“I apologize if I worried you.” Hysan brings my hand to his lips, his kiss activating a million Snow Globes stored inside my body. My skin tingles as the ghosts of his touch echo tauntingly through me.
“Hysan. Thanks for coming. Hope all is well.”
The choppiness in Stanton’s speech means he’s still wary of Hysan. When they met on Gemini, I introduced him as a friend and nothing more. Even though that’s technically true, I’m still lying to my brother . . . and apparently not even well.
“Happy to be of service,” says Hysan, flashing Stanton one of his winning grins and bumping fists with him. After exchanging the hand touch with Aryll, he says, “I can’t stay long. I only came to deliver the Bobbler, then I must report to the Plenum on House Taurus. An emergency session has been called.”
“What’s happened?” I ask, the alarm in my chest going off.
“Nothing like that. I’ll explain later.” He opens the black case he’s been carrying and holds up what looks like a deflated hot-air balloon attached to a pump. “This is a Bobbler—it’s what our scientists use to explore Kythera’s surface. As soon as you hit Inflate, it will activate, and the navigational system will launch an instructional holographic feed. You can use it to send someone to explore the surface of Cancer—or even into the Cancer Sea, up to a pressure point—and it will withstand the harshest atmospheric conditions.”
The Bobbler looks like a person-sized version of the membranes surrounding Libra’s flying cities. “Transparent nanocarbon fused with silica,” I recite, recalling Hysan’s words.
He beams at me. “Exactly.”
“What about the species down in the Rift?” Being unpleasant isn’t in my brother’s nature, so the hardness in his tone is so slight that anyone but a Libran would miss it. “We don’t have watercraft that can penetrate deep enough to know how they’ve been affected or whether we need to move them.”
“I’ve reached out to my contacts on Scorpio,” says Hysan, his smile faltering but his manner still pleasant. “It’s the only House with ships that can descend to those depths. They’re not feeling particularly warm toward Cancer right now”—his eyes flit to mine but don’t quite connect—“still, I’m hopeful they’ll come through.”
Around us the sun is setting, and a few stars are already peeking out in the darkening sky. As Hysan stores the Bobbler back inside its case, the night glows suddenly white. We look up to see silver holographic letters forming high above Tierre:
“Can you stay?” I ask Hysan hopefully.
There’s a slight hesitation before he says, “It would be my pleasure, my lady.”
Though he’s smiling, I sensed something worrisome in his pause. Whatever’s going on, it’s worse than he’s letting on.
Dinner for the sector of Capricorn we’re residing in takes place in the vast valley of a steep hill—the same one from Sage Huxler’s recollections. Herds of black-robed Capricorns make their way there with us, each holding what looks like a magical wand. It’s their Wave-like device, a Sensethyser.
Since Capricorns believe in quantifying and containing knowledge, they use a Sensethyser to capture and create holographic versions of anything new they stumble across. When pointed at something—a rare item, a new technology, an unknown mineral or plant or animal species—the Sensethyser digests every detail and creates a holographic replica that’s downloaded in a terminal of the Zodiax for review and classification.
When we reach the valley, parallel processions of people pad along both sides of one extra-extra-long table, filling their plates with small servings from every platter. Each person brings his own plate and silverware, and every Capricorn household contributes a dish to the meal. For our part, the Cancrians who were chopping up seafood earlier now deposit a tray of sushi at one end of the table.
There’s a stack of extra plates for those who forgot theirs, so Hysan pulls one from there, and once we’ve piled on some food, the four of us find a patch of grass to sit on. Most Capricorns gather in groups, holding huddled discussions and debates about a variety of subjects, and often people choose where to sit not based on whom they know but what topic is being discussed. As I thread through the groups, heads snap up to look at me.
The Cancrians here may want nothing to do with me, but the Chroniclers—Capricorn Zodai—have taken an avid interest in me since I arrived. They’ve encouraged my visits to their Membrexes and still regularly invite me to discussions across the Zodiax about the current political climate. They’ve even requested to create a Snow Globe of my experience leading the armada—but those memories are dangerous enough inside my head. Giving them physical form would only make them more destructive.
After a while, most Capricorns left me alone, probably realizing I wasn’t ready to be a full person yet. But now that there’s trouble in the news again, they’ve taken to staring at me like I’ve been holding out on them.
At last we find a quiet place to sit, in the shadow of a twisty tree. As I look around me, I try to ignore the ghosts of the Zodai who died on this very land . . . but it’s hard to forget a quilt of broken bodies.
“What is it?” asks Hysan. His large eyes run across my face like Sensethysers, deconstructing and reconstructing me inside his mind.
There was a time Stanton and I could decode each other like that . . . and now the people who know me best are a Sagittarian and a Libran. “What isn’t it?”
Hysan and I trade small, nostalgic smiles. I catch Stanton’s eyes narrowing, so I add, “What held you up?”
“I found out one of my—one of Lord Neith’s—Advisors was a Riser.” Since Stanton and Aryll don’t know Hysan is Libra’s true Guardian, we have to be careful around them.
“But Risers can’t help being Risers,” I argue, surprised that Hysan would hold a prejudice against any group of people. “It’s not their fault—”
“We caught him sabotaging Aeolus’s Psy shield. And it’s not just him—Lord Neith has been in touch with Guardians from the other Houses, and we’ve confirmed a spike in the population of Risers everywhere. Which means—”
“An imbalance in the Zodiac,” I finish, recalling Mom’s lessons.
A person becomes a Riser when her exterior persona conflicts so strongly with her internal identity that she begins to develop the personality and physical traits of another House—and it can happen at any age. Most Risers only shift signs once or twice in their lifetimes, and with each shift they try to build a new life for themselves on their new House. But there are some Risers for whom the shift doesn’t take well, leaving them with an imbalance of traits from their old and new Houses. These Risers keep shifting signs throughout their lives, until their souls regain their balance.
But some never do.
Eventually, the transformations begin to wear on the bodies of imbalanced Risers, and they develop permanent deformities, making them look like the monsters of children’s stories. Excessive shifting also affects the mind, which can sometimes turn imbalanced Risers into real-life monsters.
“Risers come from unstable Houses. A surge in their numbers now, in the midst of attacks from Ophiuchus and the Marad and the master . . .” Doubt casts a shadow across Hysan’s usually sunny glow. “It’s getting darker out there every day.”
Our conversation is interrupted by the appearance of a girl my brother’s age with frizzy curls, chestnut skin, and periwinkle eyes. “Can I join you?” asks Jewel Belger. Hers is the family Stanton was shuttling to safety on Hydragyr when Aryll saved him.
“Of course,” I say. She smiles shyly and sits next to Stanton. Right as Hysan is greeting her, a tall Capricorn Acolyte approaches us.
“Hysan Dax? Sage Ferez has requested your presence.” Her tourmaline eyes turn to me next. “Yours as well, Rhoma Grace.”
Stanton and I exchange questioning looks. “I’ll come with you,” he says, his protectiveness reminding me of Mathias.
Pushing away the pain, I shake my head. “I’ll be fine, Stan. I’ll find you after.” Hysan and I leave our still-full plates behind and follow the Capricorn Acolyte underground, where we tap into the Vein. Since the whole House is having dinner, the train is empty.
As they age, Capricorns unlock higher levels of wisdom and uncover more of the Zodiax’s secrets. Only young people ride the Vein—those over fifty have a different way of traveling no one else even knows about.
“Guardian’s chambers,” announces the cool female voice, and we click our handrails and are blown up to a station platform. The Acolyte holds her thumb over a hidden sensor on the wall, and the whole thing slides open like a door.
On its other side is a crystalline cave with walls of amber agate. The room’s bands of color are so luminous that it feels like we’re aboveground on a brilliantly sunny day. The only furniture in the cavernous space is a simple wooden desk with three chairs; behind the desk sits a stooped old man who must be nearing his centennial.
He wears the same black robes as everyone else, the only distinction a lead pendant that hangs from a silver chain. It looks like House Aquarius’s Philosopher’s Stone.
“Ah, welcome.” Sage Ferez nods kindly at the Acolyte who escorted us. “Thank you, Tavia.”
He gestures for us to come closer, and as we settle into the chairs across from him, I notice a gold star in his right iris. On his wrist is a heavy Tracker, in the palm of his hand a Tattoo, and on the desk before him are a Sensethyser, a Wave, and—
“I also have an Earpiece, a Perfectionary, a Paintbrush, a Lighter, and a Blotter,” he says, smiling at the growing surprise on my face.
“But why?” I blurt before I can think of more polite phrasing.
Far from offended, he pleasantly folds his hands together and asks, “Given the choice between possessing five senses and one, which would you choose?”
The confusion on my face only grows, but Hysan smirks.
“I apologize, Mother Rhoma, for not meeting with you sooner,” says Sage Ferez, “but, alas, I have been busy with troubles of my own. I suspect Lord Hysan will understand.” He slides his wrinkled gaze over to him. “I believe we have been facing the same transformations among our former friends.”
Hysan shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “How do you—”
“Know that you are the true Libran Guardian?” Sage Ferez smiles at him fondly. “Aging may weaken the body, but when done right, it strengthens the senses. There are few veils left my eyes cannot see through.”
Hysan looks speechless for the first time.
“Lord Vaz was a dear friend of mine, and on my many visits to him in his final year of life, I observed how deeply he cared for you. Since his passing, I’ve watched you zip in and out of Houses nearly as often as I. Though they don’t know it yet, your people are lucky to have you. Like your Cancrian colleague, you have proven yourself to be a unifier of the Zodiac.”
Ferez’s black irises glisten like they’re filled with swirling ink. “My old friend would be so proud.”
Hysan bows his head, averting his face from view, and I have to fight the urge to reach for his hand.
“Dark Matter and the Thirteenth House.”
I snap my gaze to Sage Ferez, who’s now smiling at me. Against the darkness of his skin, his teeth glow like stars. “Those veils, I’m sad to say, even I never saw through. You have a powerful gift—that alone would be enough to prove you are Cancer’s Holy Mother. Yet you have shown you have more than star-sight: Your vision for a united Zodiac isn’t a future you’ve forecasted in the sky, but rather a plan you’ve undertaken on the ground. That is quite wise for one so young.”
“I led us into a massacre,” I say, shaking my head, unable to accept so much kindness. “I failed.”
“Failure is not an end—it is the means to an end. Study your failures, for they are the scrambled secrets of success.” His black eyes crinkle in a mischievous, childlike grin. “There’s an old saying about the Cardinal Houses that asserts we are not only masters of our own elements, but we also possess an invincibility to another. Fire can’t be shaken. The grounded can’t be blown away. Air can’t be drowned. And water can’t be burned.”
I bite down on my lower lip as Mathias’s words whisper through me. You’re an everlasting flame that can’t be put out.
“Your mother’s abandonment did not destroy you. Nor did your father’s passing. Even Ophiuchus could not kill you. You are strong and resilient, impermeable to fire or water: You will rise and re-form from the ashes of this defeat.”
Now I’m the one silenced by Sage Ferez’s words. But while his generosity moves and humbles me . . . I know I’m not worthy of his praise. So does the Plenum, and so does the rest of the Zodiac. I appreciate the few friends I have left, but I’m not kidding myself any longer—I should have refused the role of Holy Mother in the first place. I’m not—nor was I ever—Guardian material.
“I have requested your presence to ask a favor,” says the aged Guardian, looking from me to Hysan again. “I’m leaving immediately after this meeting to visit Moira. She is a dear friend, one of the last I have left since Origene’s passing, and I fear for her future. Before I go, I would ask something of you. We represent three of the four Cardinal Houses, and as such, we are owners of Cardinal Stones.”
“I don’t have the black opal anymore,” I interrupt. “It was returned to Agatha when she became the interim Guardian.”
“The Talisman will only answer to a true Guardian—it remains in your service, whether it is physically with you or not. Once you are reunited with it, I must ask you and Hysan to seek out General Eurek on House Aries with your Talismans in hand. He will explain the rest.”
“What will uniting the stones do?” asks Hysan, his speedy processing reminding me of Nishi.
“I believe you may have guessed by now what strength the Thirteenth House once brought to the Zodiac.”
“Unity,” I supply, the word sour on my tongue.
“Precisely. I have hope that uniting the four stones will help us locate the Thirteenth Talisman, the one lost to time. Perhaps we can access its knowledge and discover the path to reuniting our galaxy.”
Hysan and I are so awed by the notion that neither of us speaks for a moment. I still haven’t moved past the fact that Sage Ferez believes me—believes in me—and doesn’t think the Thirteenth House is my own fabrication. Then Hysan asks, “What about yourself?”
The Guardian shakes his bald head, and the shadows on his face grow longer. “Only the stars know my fate, dear boy . . . but if I should have joined them by then, do not fret, for Eurek will know what to do.”
Then his wrinkled features break into a genial smile, as though we were discussing happier subjects. “One more thing.”
Sage Ferez leans into his desk, and Hysan and I instinctively come closer, too. “You will hear a lot about Risers in the coming war—and yes,” he adds, seeing my expression, “a war is coming. But there is something you must know before it starts. Risers are not a plague . . . they are part of the future.”
He turns his glittering dark eyes to me. “You asked why I possess eleven technologies when one would suffice—can you now think of the reason?”
For a moment I’m stumped, and I feel my cheeks heating with embarrassment—but then the answer bubbles forth from my mouth, like it’s been trapped there all along. “Choice. Because you have the freedom to choose.”
He breaks into his childlike grin again. “Precisely. Each House operates a different way because it’s shaped according to the preferences of its people. Yet you both know better than most that we cannot control the circumstances of our birth. Not which family we are born into, nor which House. The truth is, our parents are but part of the equation that forms us—because the only thing more powerful than fate is free will.
“Our choices define us: The stars may set us on a given path, but it is we who must decide whether we take it.”
He gives us a moment to process what he’s said so far, but I’m still stuck on the bit about Risers being the future.
“This wave of Risers is only the beginning.”
His demeanor grows heavy again, and for a moment all one hundred years seem to be bearing down on him at once. “I know this is difficult to understand, but since you will lead us, you need to hear it. There may well be a time . . . in the not-too-distant future . . . when our House affiliation will no longer be determined by birth.”
His inky eyes lock on mine, and I can’t even blink.
“When our Zodiac sign will be a matter of choice.”
I’M STILL STARING AT SAGE Ferez in unblinking disbelief when a couple of black-robed Chroniclers billow into the room from a back door. “Your transport is ready,” one of them says to Ferez, offering the elderly Guardian a supporting arm.
The Sage rises on his own, and Hysan and I stand, too. “Until we meet again,” he says, “good fortune to you both.”
Hysan and I ride the Vein in silence.
“Cancrian sleeping quarters,” says the cool female voice. Since we’re still building our bungalows, Cancrians have been given lodging at one of the Zodiax’s numerous hotels.
I look at Hysan. “Do you want to come—?”
“Yes,” he says quickly, and we both press the button on our handrails. We’re blown onto the bouncy train platform, and after I flash my thumbprint over a wall sensor, a hidden door opens into the glossy golden lobby of the Fluffy Giraffe Resort.
Stanton, Aryll, and I share a suite on one of the lowest levels, a three-pronged circular room with offshoots to each bedroom. The round room is spacious and surrounded by books, wallscreens, a teaching crown, and all kinds of games and exercises for mental workouts. There’s also a small kitchen, and tucked behind the floor-to-ceiling temperator, which stores food at multiple temperatures, is a tiny table that barely fits two people.
I boil us a pot of brainberry tea. Brainberries, a fruit that grow abundantly on Tierre’s trees, are believed to possess nourishing mental properties and are a preferred treat among people and pocket pigs.
Hysan and I squeeze around the square table, and each time one of us takes a sip from our clay teacups, our elbows brush. Goose bumps continually race up my arms.
“Things are rough out there, Rho.” Concern shines through Hysan’s expression. “The Marad is growing stronger, attacking more often. They seem to be everywhere at once—explosions on a Leonine Pride that killed hundreds, sabotaging the air supply on a Scorp waterworld that drowned dozens, assassinations of high-ranking Clan Elders on Aquarius . . .”
Faint lines press into his skin, making him look older. “The worst part isn’t even the violence—it’s the fear. Anyone could be working for the Marad, so people have stopped trusting each other—especially if they’re from different Houses. It’s what always happens: The greater our need to unite, the deeper we divide.”
I can’t think of anything comforting to say. I’ve seen reports about this already, but it’s harder on Hysan, who still has to worry about protecting his people. The news is playing on a small kitchen wallscreen, and it grows louder in our silence. An Aquarian man with glassy eyes the color of a pink sunset (Aquarians’ irises reflect the sky at one’s time of birth) is addressing a crowd of Zodai University students. A holographic headline scrolls beneath him: Aquarius—struggling “superpower” already spending beyond its means.
I look at Hysan, and before I can ask, he answers: “That’s Morscerta’s replacement, Ambassador Crompton. I haven’t met him yet.”
Morscerta died in the armada. My hand trembles as I bring the empty teacup to my mouth.
“Since they have the largest store of freshwater in the Zodiac, Aquarius has taken up the charge to coordinate donations among the Houses. But as usual, their idealism exceeds their finances. One of the issues the Plenum is debating this session is whether to bail them out of their debt, which they incurred helping the Houses.”
I nod, and we both grow interested in the faint patterns of the wooden table, until Hysan says, “My lady, though I’d rather stay, I should go. I’m expected on House Taurus to discuss the Riser situation.”
Getting to our feet is a clumsy process in the small space. Once we’re upright, we’re concealed behind the tall temperator, our faces a foot apart.
“It’s really great to see you, Rho.” Hysan’s voice is lower and huskier.
“You too,” I whisper, my heartbeat speeding up. My back is against the kitchen counter, the space between us so tiny that it makes his mouth’s magnetic pull impossible to ignore.
“On Libra,” he murmurs, his cedary scent tickling my face, “we’re taught to think of every being as a galaxy. We can only see as much of a person as we’re equipped to see.”
He leans closer, and I’m suddenly aware our clothes are touching, which makes it hard to focus on anything else. “The better our telescope, the more light we can reveal. The more constellations we can uncover.”
The weight of his body presses into mine, and my muscles buzz in anticipation, my gaze growing too heavy to lift from his lips. “But I think even the most powerful telescope couldn’t come close to capturing all your light,” he whispers, “or unearthing all your wonders.”
The impulse to kiss him grows too strong, and I close my eyes and reach up—but a stab of pain cleaves my chest.
Guilt, heartache, regret. A warning shot sent by the Mathias sector of my heart. I swallow back my emotions and look away from Hysan, breaking our moment. Neither of us says anything for a few breaths.
When I meet his gaze again, Hysan seems more worried than hurt. “Be careful who you trust. Sage Ferez may be right about Risers in the long run, but if this wave is truly the start of a new evolution, the first generation will likely be unstable and unpredictable. Nature will need time to work out the kinks.”
I nod. “Take care of yourself, too.” I see again the vision of the battlefield from Sage Huxler’s recollections, the body parts that were once people. “I’m worried about what’s coming. For all of us.”
Hysan reaches out to touch me just as the door to the suite swings open. My brother and Aryll are back. Hysan reads the alarm on my face, and with a quick flick of his wrist, he vanishes. He’s wearing his Veil collar.
“Thank you,” I whisper into the air.
“Always, my lady.” His words blow into my ear, and then his muffled footsteps recede across the round room.
I make a lot of noise greeting Stanton and Aryll while Hysan slips out the door. “Did you deliver the Bobbler to the Lodestars?”
“Yeah,” says Stanton, dropping the bag with his wet suit and silverware on the floor. “What did Ferez want?”
“He told me . . . he said he believes I’m the true Holy Mother.”
My cheeks blaze bright red the moment I say it. I hadn’t meant to tell Stanton that part—in fact, I hadn’t worked out what I was going to say at all—but just like when we were younger, I can’t help seeking his validation.
Funny how of all the remarkable things Ferez revealed, this is the one I can’t shake.
“He shouldn’t be meddling with Cancrian affairs,” bursts out Stanton, surprising me with the force of his anger. “This isn’t your fight anymore.”
“But if there’s anything I can do to help—”
“You already tried to help,” he says, cutting me off. “Besides, it’s not up to Ferez to predict Cancer’s rightful Guardian. It’s the way of the stars.”
“But the stars are still saying ‘Rho,’” says a soft voice.
It’s hard to tell who’s most shocked by Aryll’s interjection: Stanton, me, or Aryll himself.
“The stars aren’t saying anyone yet,” corrects Stanton, now using a new tone to address Aryll—the same impatient one he’s been reserving for me.
“I just mean it’s people who kicked her out, not stars.” Aryll sounds like he wishes he could take back his support of me. “Anyway, Ferez should really stay out of this stuff. I think I left my . . . back at the settlement—”
Aryll darts out the door midway through his own sentence. Any time Stanton and I start to argue, he runs away. And then once he’s gone, Stanton and I lose our conviction. It’s hard to care about most things when we’re reminded how much worse off we could be. Aryll used to have a sister, too.