Nikko waited behind the Old Tower for Aislinn to find him. He hadn’t gone far, and he fully expected to see her within thirty seconds of her “Ready or not, here I come!” But he didn’t see her. He waited a few more minutes. Nothing.
He sighed, leaning against the yellow-gray stones of the tower. He always got bored when hiding in hide and seek, but there was no way he was going to let Aislinn go off by herself who knows where.
A strange noise, like someone falling on the hard stones of the street, jolted him out of his idle imaginings. He peeked out from the corner of the tower.
There, sprawled on the ground, was a girl in a purple dress with long black hair. She was breathing hard, trying to stand up after her apparent fall. Her hands were bleeding slightly.
Nikko instantly stepped out from his hiding place to help her. He held out his hand to her. “Are you all right, miss?”
She regarded him warily, then took his hand. He helped her to her feet. “Yes, I-I’m all right.” Her voice was breathless and shaky, and the image of a hunted deer sprang to Nikko’s mind.
“Who were you running from?” he blurted, then added, “If you don’t mind my asking.” The girl’s eyes widened, and for a moment Nikko thought she would take off. But she seemed to get ahold of herself, and she answered him.
“Jessamine,” she whispered. She seemed to suddenly realize she was still holding his hand, and quite tightly at that. She let go.
Nikko cocked his head slightly. “Who’s Jessamine? I’ve never heard of her.”
The girl shivered. “My older sister. She calls herself Jessamine Darkfeather. I haven’t actually seen her since we were at the Academy Automicus. You may call me Krystal,” she added abruptly.
“I see.” He nodded. “Why were you running from her?”
Krystal stiffened, and her voice became cold and formal. “That’s my business.”
Nikko was confused. One second, this strange girl seemed to trust him, and the next not at all. A small movement of crimson caught his eye. In the shadows, he saw the silhouette of a girl. At first, he was going to call out to her. Aislinn had been wearing red, and there was no use hiding now. But something stopped him. Maybe it was the fact that Aislinn would never hide in the shadows like that. Maybe it was a gut feeling, a chance hunch.
Maybe it was the striking red feather in the person’s hat.
Krystal noticed him looking at the shape, and followed his gaze. She gasped, and without another word took off at a dead run.
He whirled to watch her go, then turned back to face the shadowed spy. She had come into the cloudy light now. This must be Jessamine Darkfeather.
“Nicolai Whyatov, also known as Nikko Bestburst. Former Academy cadet and partner of Tasha O’Connor. How nice to see you again. It seems that my dear sister has already told you my identity.” Her voice was some sort of cross between honey, oil, and frosty steel daggers. She wore a sly, conniving grin.
Nikko unconsciously took a step back. Again? “Why was she running from you?” Out of all the words whirling in his mind, these were the only ones that came out.
“As she said, that’s her business.” The smile seemed malicious now. “While you are here, I must ask a few questions. Why did you leave the Empire? I’ve heard rumors, of course, but it’s always best to go to the source. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Nikko was trying to make his tongue work enough to say something. This girl terrified him, even though she was a few years younger and several inches shorter than he. Maybe it was a combination of her strange, cold voice, her fog-colored eyes, and the way her sister had become almost hysterical at the sight of her.
At that moment, a kid ran up to the tower clutching a full Aethermeter. Jessamine slipped back into the shadows, and Nikko was left alone with the kid. It was a little girl dressed in urchin’s rags, and her shiny new badge indicated she had only been resisting for a short time. She poured the full contents of her meter into the tower, then scurried off to find more.
Nikko was still a bit shell-shocked. He watched as Jessamine materialized again. “You didn’t answer my question, Bestburst.”
“We were interrupted,” he answered, a plan forming in his mind. Well, a half-baked vague idea. A lot of his plans were like that.
“But you see, we are no longer interrupted. Proceed.” She waved her hand.
Nikko lifted his head confidently. “With pleasure. I left the Empire because it is evil and I want no part in it. Do you need a better reason?”
For the first time, a small frown appeared on her face. “Why do you call it evil? Doesn’t the fog bring prosperity to the land? Doesn’t the Emperor give us safety?”
He shook his head. “No. It’s a deception.”
She pondered this for a moment, her eyes as cold as ice. For some strange reason, she changed the subject. “Do you like my feather? It is red, yes?” She chuckled. Nikko looked at her askance, trying to figure out what she wasn’t saying.
“I assume that since you know my name, you know my story?” he asked.
“I have heard bits and pieces,” she replied, the sly smirk returning. “But do tell me more.”
“Well, I’m an orphan, for one thing.”
Jessamine scoffed. “Oh, please, give me a better beginning than that. All stories are about orphans. Tell me your real story, Bestburst.”
He started to get angry. “You want a story? I’ll give you a story. There was once a person named Jess who tried to take over the world.”
“That is not my goal as of yet. But you’re stalling. It is becoming annoying.”
He grinned. “Good. I like to annoy evil people. I think I picked it up from Aislinn. She’s taught me how to be an irritating hero.”
Her eyebrows raised. “Perhaps I will have to ask her, if you aren’t inclined to cooperate.”
“She’s busy,” he said quickly, panic rising in his throat. No, not her! “But you should know, she holds up to questioning better than I.”
“If that is true, she must be very stubborn indeed.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” he answered with a quiet laugh.
“I know a bit less than half of it, yes? Resistance hero, metal arm, and so on. But you were telling a story. Do you know how it ends?”
“I do. It ends with a certain person screaming in frustration into the distance.” Jessamine only chuckled, unnerving Nikko even more. “I amuse you? Good. Amusement is very distracting.”
“You are quite funny when you put your mind to it.” She smiled, poison sweet, and reached to her shoulder to pet something small and metallic. It had eight tentacles and eyes that glowed green.
“You have a robotic squid?” Nikko asked wonderingly. “Is it similar to, say, a Dumbo Octopus?”
“I should say not.” Her voice was indignant. “Quinn is an Octomaton. She can ink people when they get too close.” As she spoke, the tentacled Automaton squirted black ink straight into Nikko’s shirt.
“I don’t care,” he said absently, still staring at the mechanical squid. “I think she’s cute. I wanted to dye this vest black, anyway. Thank you,” he said to the tiny Auto, who waved a tentacle in response.
Jessamine’s eyes bored into him, then grew oddly distant. After a moment, she said in a dreamy voice, “Isn’t the fog a lovely color?”
“Do you cough from the fog?”
He was slightly taken aback by this question. “Uh, well, not...not as much as some people.” He had always been a little ashamed of that fact. It meant he was used to the toxic mist.
“Interesting. That could mean you are not completely taken by the Aether, and therefore not a complete traitor to the Emperor.”
“Now, wait just a minute-”
“Does Aislinn cough?” Her tone was almost innocent now, as if she was simply curious.
Nikko gritted his teeth and muttered, “Yes.”
He silently cursed the girl as he ground out, “Because I infected her with the Ruka virus. It makes her more sensitive to fog.”
“Ohhhh.” Her fog-hued eyes gleamed. “That is interesting, isn’t it, Quinn?” She petted the squid again.
“Before you consider using it, I would warn you that it’s highly unstable and more likely to fail than not.” The gleam scared him. He wished he’d never mentioned Aislinn at all.
Jess stopped stroking the mechanical crustacean and studied him. “Why are you even here right now, Bestburst?”
Nikko grinned. “My mission was to annoy you.” Or to keep you away from that Krystal girl. “I believe you have been annoyed. Mission complete.”
“Is that so? Hmm.” Her gaze once more became distant. “I must bid you farewell. But beware. You never know who might be looking for you.” She turned to leave, but looked back at him, a threat in her eyes. “Or Aislinn.” She melted into the shadows.
Almost the same instant, Nikko heard two pairs of feet pounding on the cobblestones. “NIKKO!” Aislinn yelled, her hands cupped to her mouth. “GAME’S OVER! EMERGENCY!”