3

Callie jumped onto her bed, upsetting the almost sleeping Murray. He stared at her with large yellow eyes, wondering what she thought she was doing upsetting his rest like that.

"I'm sorry, Murray," she apologized, running her hands down the length of his back.

Sometimes she found it odd that her uncle's best friend was now hers. Other times, she found it almost disturbing that Murray had once been a twenty-year old college student but was now a near-immortal house pet.

It occurred to Callie on more than one occasion that Murray might still have his mind trapped deep inside his little exotic-cat skull. When she found him watching her as she changed in the morning, or asleep on the pillow beside her, she felt very strange.

The last time she had talked to Aaron about Murray, her uncle had assured her that if the cat had his human memories that Murray would have turned back into human form in the blink of an eye.

Callie hadn't quite agreed; if she had the ability to be a well-loved, well-fed pet whose hardest task in the course of the day was sleeping through half of it, she wouldn't want to change back.

She was thinking too much.

Time had passed and she hadn't noticed. She'd been thinking about Murray while tossing her sheathed knife up in the air and catching it.

The sun was on a slow course to set.

Looking outside, Callie saw that the grill had been put away in the shed.

As she lifted the screen window up, Callie closed her eyes. A gentle breeze tickled her face.

Murray jumped up into the window. He promptly settled into the nook of the sill with his front paws folded under his chest.

The first time she had been told that she was an Aviavol Callie hadn't believed her sister. She thought that Jenna was lying to her. Jenna was only nine, after all. Why should Callie have believed her?

As Jenna demonstrated the Itera form, Callie's disbelief had melted. She was terrified.

Callie had screamed for her mother and father.

Jenna changed back and clasped a hand over Callie's mouth. "Shh! They'll kill me if they know I showed you."

Callie stared at her sister with wide eyes. She had never been so frightened in her life.

"If I let you go, you have to promise not to scream again. Got it?" Jenna awaited Callie's response.

Quickly, Callie nodded. What else was she to do, sit there for the rest of her life with Jenna's hand latched to her face? Not likely.

Jenna slowly pried her fingers away from the seven-year old's mouth. She had herself braced and ready to stop Callie's scream if she were to try it again.

Callie didn't move for a very long time. When her senses came back, she asked, "How did you do that?"

"I don't know how to explain it," Jenna admitted, standing and pacing around their room. "I just can. I think it; it happens. You could do it too, if you were taught."

"What else can you turn into?" Callie asked, her interest peaked and eager for more tricks.

Jenna bit her lip, a nervous habit. "Only that. Though Uncle Aaron's teaching me to hold a half-form, where we can have wings."

"Like angels?"

Jenna laughed. "Yeah, like angels."

Callie brushed the memory away. She had to think a moment. A moment that was not centered on her sister.

Checking the wind and the direction, she wondered if she could make it to an Aviavol safe land without someone to guide her. She didn't want to wind up in unfriendly territory. The thought did cross her mind, though, that the safe lands were only safe because Yudar protected them. The Aviavols had no real claim on the land, unlike their hidden cities.

She had made the trip to the Merrimack River many times before with Aaron and Jenna, back when Callie's family had lived in Boston. She had needed a guide because the trip was long and she was so young, only thirteen the last time she had gone.

Callie straightened her back. She didn't need a guide. Today, she was sixteen. If she got lost, she could ask for directions back home and try for the river some other day.

Murray had become used to her changing in and out of her true form. When her body shimmered out of existence and she took her beautiful black and yellow-orange oriole form, he didn't so much as flinch.

Callie stepped onto the window's ledge as an Itera- the Aviavol term meant that she was a Dornamo with the bird form of an oriole. Her tiny feet gripped with their claws. The winds were stronger to her now, since they were then blowing over a much tinier body.

She went into a dive, tucking her legs close to her feathered body. The currents caught under her spread wings and aided her glide upwards, away from the pavement of the patio. She could have easily taken to the sky from the sill without the dive, but she was feeling daring.

In the sky, Callie felt like part of the world more so than when she was on the ground. On the ground, she couldn't tell which way things were going, what was coming.

The air cared for her. It told her where to go and how to get there. The people below didn't look so perfect from above. The people were tiny and their perfect houses were only flawed splotches on an otherwise beautiful landscape.

Callie cleared her mind, letting a song come to her throat. She sang as she flew towards the stream where Jenna had often taken her to sit up late staring at the stars.

Slowly, Callie let her Aviavol instincts take control of the path. She relaxed, and temporarily forgot that she had a human form, and parents, and a brother. She could even manage to forget about Aaron and Murray when she let more of her bird form have control.

Jenna was harder to forget.

The sun was dipping beneath the horizon by the time regular thinking pushed back into her mind. Since she didn't see the river, she had to head home.

Then she saw it glinting in the sweet sunset, half-hidden through the trees.

Beating her wings in wide strokes, she slowed down and came to rest on a high tree branch. Callie listened to the world around her. She peered through the branches, wondering what Yudar were protecting the river this evening, be it crow or robin. Maybe she would catch a glimpse of some cardinals or blue jays.

"Little Dornamo, what are you doing so far away from home?" a soft voice cooed, not sounding surprised in the least.

Callie looked down and saw a figure lying in the grass near the stream. The Itera hopped from the tree branch and made the shift back to human form. As the girl who had spoken turned around to see her, Callie locked her gaze.

"Marissa," she stated, her voice sizzling as she recognized the royal Preyer. Usually, the royal Aviavols stayed in their towers and cities. The one that Marissa called home, hidden by ancient Dornamo magic like all the other cities, was in the center of a lake somewhere near Vermont and New York. Callie didn't know which state exactly, and wouldn't be told where the city was exactly unless she chose to hone her Dornamo magic in the city's walls. The Preyer was far from home, but her powerful Aviavol form would get her back in no time.

Called Ruhme Wassier, meaning Glory of the Waters, the secret city was reachable only by those who knew where to look or with the proper magic to find them. Humans out in boats would unknowingly avoid the center of lakes or ponds that held protected Aviavol homes, turning their rudders to make course corrections without so much as a thought to it. A magical field, placed by some of the most powerful Aviavol mages, protected all the great cities and made any viewer simply see the other side of the water. Depending on how old the cities were, the fields were decades or centuries old.

Marissa Bay, who was of the highest house of Lahnays, the kite Preyers, brushed a strand of violet hair away from her equally violet eyes. She smirked at Callie.

"Didn't like how cerulean went with your complexion?" Callie commented on the new hair and contacts color.

The Preyer rose. There was strength in her posture as she swaggered towards the young Itera. She circled Callie, inspecting her. "Royal purple is a more suitable color for me. Besides, I like to jazz things up every now and then. Now answer my question, Dornamo."

Callie stepped away from Marissa, moving towards the placid part of the river she had wanted to visit. It was unfortunate that so many other Aviavols enjoyed that particular spot; it was just her luck that Marissa would be the one visiting that day.

"I'm out for a flight. Nothing illegal in that," Callie said with a smile.

Marissa laughed. "I've never known you to travel without a guide. Who shall I be expecting not far behind you this time? Your dear uncle?"

Callie kept smiling since it was all that stopped her from engaging the other Aviavol in a quick fight. "No," she replied curtly. "I'm old enough to be out by myself. Besides, he doesn't know I'm out."

Marissa pondered. "Hmm. I don't know. What are you now? Twelve? Thirteen?"

"Sixteen."

"Sixteen?" Marissa laughed. "Hardly old enough. I'll bet your big sister is going to be along any moment."

Her words were laced with ice, aimed directly at Callie's softest emotions.

Glaring, Callie took a defensive step towards the violet-haired young woman. "Don't pretend you haven't heard that Jenna's dead."

The violet eyes glanced away and Marissa began walking towards the water. Her steps were unhurried.

"Ah yes!" she exclaimed, sounding fake in her recollection. "I seem to have heard something about that. Now, who's fault was it?"

Callie approached Marissa by the water's edge, checking quickly for the short knife Aaron had given her earlier that day. "I never told her to go to that party, Marissa. No one could have known it was a Ruhestiel target."

Marissa ignored Callie's argument. She flashed her bitter gaze back at Callie. "Tell me, Dornamo, did they do it slowly? When you saw Jenna's body, had they cut out her heart?"

"Like they did your mother's?" Callie retorted quickly before Marissa managed any more heated questions.

The Preyer let out a shrill cry, drawing a dagger. "Inferior!"

"Is that your expert opinion, my liege?" Callie emphasized with anger the royal reference.

When she saw Callie draw her own weapon, Marissa grinned.

The Preyer commanded, "Enough of this. We've both lost loved ones to Ruhestiel hunters." Marissa sheathed her blade and gave a resentful laugh. "Do you know they fancy themselves the champions of a persecuted race?"

Callie scoffed at the idea. "I've heard more than I want to about that pack of murderers."

Marissa smiled, the hint of ascendancy still thinly veiled. "I see we at least have one common thought in our minds. What an odd occurrence."

Turning to the royal, Callie remarked with acid in her tone, "We both loved Jenna. Though I loved her only as a sister does, while you loved her in a strikingly different way."

Marissa lowered her head, shutting her eyes. She looked as though a knife had just hit her side, and someone was twisting it.

"I thank you not to remind me of old feelings." Straightening her back, Marissa leveled her gaze at Callie. "A Dornamo lover with no magical talents, no matter how in the past it was, would not be viewed favorably for a Preyer. Though, I'm sure Jenna found herself very clever to have caught the eye of someone with power."

"You're power's limited, Marissa." Callie shook her head. Jenna had been truly infatuated with Marissa, and could barely say a bad word about her. "I don't know why Jenna could even stand you. You're personality leaves something to be desired."

As her words were spoken, sharp-edged nails tore down Callie's arm. Blood flowed instantly to the thin, deep wounds.

Marissa watched as the girl clutched the slices.

"Be glad you're an Aviavol, little Dornamo. You'd be dead for that remark if you weren't."

Callie wanted to speak back, but Jenna's warnings about Marissa's temper and pride came to mind.

Watching the blood seep through Callie's fingers, Marissa commented, emotionless, "Never insinuate that a Preyer is anything less than perfect."

Callie winced, and focused on healing the wounds.

"You think you're at the bottom of our society now?" Marissa closed the distance between them. She went as if to kiss Callie's cheek, just below her temple. "It can always get worse, sweetheart."

Marissa stepped back without doing another thing.

A fire raged within Callie's soul. She knew what Marissa was threatening. If the Preyer had kissed her, from that point on Callie would have belonged to Marissa.

The Kiss of Duty, also called the Lacyäle, was often used by Marissa's kind when an Aviavol of a lower caste did something worthy of death. If their merciful judge felt that execution was not in order, the Kiss was given. Instead of a quick, painless punishment, the criminal would be the property of the Preyer for three tasks of the royal's choosing.

Most who had received the kiss felt it was a sentence far worse than even the cruelest torture.

In her situation, Callie had presently insulted a royal kite, and that was most definitely cause for deadly repercussions. With the Lacyäle, whenever Marissa wanted something, and whatever she wanted, Callie would be duty-bound by her loyalties to fulfill Marissa's desires.

The thought made the Itera's empty stomach ache.

"You wouldn't do that, Marissa!" Callie argued. Inside, Callie was grateful that Marissa had not leaned another half an inch forward, but outwardly, she was furious. She hated the system of castes that the Aviavols had. She hated the warring and the politics.

Marissa raised her eyebrows.

"Wouldn't I?" The Preyer laughed. "I believe that is in my power. Short of murder, the Lacyäle would allow me to ask you to do anything. Whatever I would ask of you, though, you could expect that it wouldn't be enjoyable."

As an afterthought, Marissa added, "For you at least."

Callie stood still. She was waiting to see if Marissa would come back to her. Callie had, after all, called her bluff.

Marissa was satisfied to leave the fear of her power instilled upon Callie. She growled, "Get out of my sight. I was enjoying watching the water before you so rudely arrived. Don't make me call the Yudar down to escort you home."

Begrudgingly, Callie made the shift back into her Itera form and took flight to her new house in Groton. Once home, she barricaded herself in her room and wouldn't open the door, even when Aaron came up with some food. No matter how many times her mother begged her to join her family on her birthday, Callie refused.

The only comfort she could find that night was in cream-colored silk and glinting silver steel.