The sun was ceaselessly burning when Lord Lorica Alwitter awoke to the dayrise bell echoing across the vast City of Realm. The thin vein of Stream that ran over the railing of his balcony was flickering with a sustained pale blue, with shards of red and orange flashing infrequently. He held out his palm to it, instinctually, but did not snap the Stream. Never here. He reiterated, with focused thought.
Though the sun never left the sky, there was a time to rest and a time to rise. The Stream told him, even before the dayrise bell sounded, that his mind was waking up. The Humans learned quickly after they conquered these lands that the mind cannot sustain without rest. Yet, they have done such things in the brightness for all to see.
The Stream did not truly speak to him, as it did for the Bessan Shifters captured as slaves for the Realm. He did gather feelings and pulses of intent on occasion from it, but nothing he could act upon; like an itch he couldn’t reach. He was a Jeshan Shifter, and a master of the physical world, but this was not a thing that was known to anyone else in the Realm. Lorica kept a secret within, that, with one lapse of focus, would cost him his life without hesitation.
He sat on the edge of his bed, readying himself for his day in service of his House; putting on his garments and socks with his robes and armor nearby. Without any warning, other than a slight, soft little sound almost too faint to notice, Sesha pounced on him from behind. She too was in her morning clothes, having slunk a long distance down the corridor unnoticed. Only if someone had seen her sneaking along, he mused. It was a pleasant surprise.
“You are quite good at that, you know?” Lorica said through his smile as he rolled on the ground. “You should join me at the barracks this morning and show the men a thing or two about agility.”
“My talents are mine to use as I will, and I’m certainly not giving away my secrets for free!” She snarled. Standing over him while he collected himself slowly from the floor. Lorica let out a healthy chuckle on top of his strewn garments.
“I imagine my lady has a price in mind already?” Lorica said, standing and looking for the rest of his scattered clothes on the ground. “I’m ready and willing to pay you whatever you ask to come down and soundly defeat Lord Lorica of House Alwitter in front of his men. This sounds like a most rewarding transaction, especially for my standing in the army.”
She laughed uproariously. Sesha was a Human he had fallen in love with. She was a citizen resident of his noble House Alwitter; the daughter of the family representative of the northern districts. Her family and his own had worked together in the City of Realm for many years for his noble House, much as many of the familial members were succeeded by kin of their own families. This tradition of locality gave some of the older noble Houses a unique and rich understanding of life in the City and nation of Realm that few newer Houses could hope to possess.
“If they made any armor that actually fit me correctly,” she said as she strutted around the room, making her way to where he had risen from bed. “I might name that price.” She continued until she was sitting on the edge, atop his disheveled sheets with her night clothes opening slightly. “Right now, there’s only one thing I want.”
Lorica knew that he felt strongly for her, and he judged himself harshly for ensnaring her in his interest. Her wit and intellect were a rare and wonderful gift she had to give, and together, they always complimented each other well in their engagements. Their love was a secret, just like his being a Shifter was a secret he kept from her. In his personal life, he had constructed a set of teetering conditions, one dependent on the next, yet still accepting that despite the tenuous stability they brought. Sometimes, we risk to grasp for something not before achieved; a plain of existence only conceived of before, but not then attained. He had risked his own instability in the constant vigilance against being discovered as a Shifter, while inviting a personal experience of true Humanness and mortality.
Lorica could not yield to his instinct to commune with the Stream, but he could feel the deep emotional bond and physical union he would have had with the ethereal force of existence, in the indulgence of this remarkable woman who he adored. His dilemma was clear to him from the onset many years earlier; that there would be no life with her in it once it was revealed what he was. His house would be destroyed and all those he sheltered would be slaughtered.
They lingered together after, she, lightly exploring the contours of his body with the soft tips of her fingers. His left arm was under her pillows as she alighted on his chest while Lorica stared at the vaulted ceiling, deep in thought.
“Where are you going, when you disappear like that just now?” She said with such tenderness despite the profound gravity of the subject.
“Going?” He stalled, realizing he’d been caught.
“I feel you… it’s not me that has your mind out of sorts, but something else, something like a dream that takes you away from me for a moment.” She was looking up at his chin as she spoke, still touching his body with her fingers.
Lorica was stunned in his thoughts but composed in his actions. “You know I’m not sure where I go, but I am glad for the time we have in this room together.” He diverted weakly.
“You’re not sure?” She wasn’t letting the topic escape so easily. “Sometimes just when we talk, and I see you staring out of the window. Other times I see it when we are together, and you are still here with me, but I feel that you have gone somehow. I’m not sure if I can really explain why I think that, but it is a thing that I feel inside my chest.”
She is like a Bessan in some ways, even if she is not, he thought. She had an ability to see inside him in a way that no other Humans or Shifters had before her. She was looking within him and seeing that he could not be with her forever, that even as he loved her, the truth of the impending future was slowly destroying them. She could somehow feel this happening before it was actually taking place. He was at a crossroads. This was a domain in which he knew he could not change reality as he could when he Shifted in the physical world. In his heart, and hers, he was powerless.
“There’s no answer I can give you.” Lorica said, looking down into her eyes. “I don’t understand it myself. You and I have always seen something more within each other. You are not like anyone I have met, and neither am I to you. In this space we have together, we can be safe.” He continued, but more earnestly. “Sesha, this world is not a forgiving place, and we are both aware of that. Even now, we defy order to be in this space together. I can’t explain who I am, or what you see in me any more than I already have. There can be nothing more than this, here, now, as you have known for some time.”
“Why?” She pleaded. “I love you Lorica. I want to be with you… all of you. I want this life we have now and more, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do want it, and you, very much,” he said sadly. “What is and what we desire are two things that are often not the same. That is the reason I said the world does not forgive and does not oblige the whims of love and the emotions of those who are entrapped by it. The truth can reveal, but it can also rend, sweet woman. I’m sorry, but there will be no time when we are as you dream.”
At this, she turned to her side, facing him, with a stunned, sad look on her face. “Lorica,” she said slowly. “Why must you say these things?”
“Because you and I both know they are true, and no matter how we wish that they were not, they are. There is no bridge we can build now that will span the growing distance between us.” A moment of silence fell between them as they came to terms with the reality of the situation. “This is why you wished to speak to me about this, because you saw this pain that I carry within, knowing our time will end. The joy you have given me is more than I could have ever hoped for, Sesha,” he took her soft hands in his. “Please forgive me for loving you as much as I do and being here with you in a way I could not promise to preserve. This is a wound inside me that you have seen because you know me… because you love me.”
“I still love you now Lorica,” she said, with tears. “What will become of us?”
He paused for a moment in thought. The fleeting impermanence of life was again reminding him that even the most delicate, beautiful of expressions are no more than paper in the fire; flashing brilliantly then fading to little more than a crisp of ash in moments. Warm, bright and pure when burning, emotions such as love, joy and desire illuminate, but cannot sustain in this imbalanced world he resided within. While he remained in the City of Realm, he would be living a lie, and the future of a lie is nothing worth having.
“We will burn up.” He said.
Sesha placed her head back down on his chest and wept.
Lorica Alwitter strode down the corridor towards the northern wing of the estate. He arrived with several formal salutes from the House guard stationed there, as he walked up the stairs to the great hall.
“Ah,” a master of house Bethel, in colorful flowing robes, said as he caught sight of Lorica in his uniform and armor. “Good to have you here at last. We have been waiting for some time.”
“You, master Bethel, are the one that has been waiting unnecessarily.” He retorted confidently. “The quarter bell has not sounded, has it?”
“No, it hasn’t,” master Bethel admitted begrudgingly.
“I imagine you are, more to the point, unhappy with the increase in our cost for maintaining the protection of your transports across the Trader’s Bay. This was the primary concern I wished to address with you at today’s gathering.” Lorica was cool, strong and confident in his speech as he strode over to the main conference table as others then took their seats. “We are gathered here today to discuss the agreed-to terms of the Blue Fleet’s protection of your Houses’ vessels traveling across the Trader’s Bay. I believe master Bethel has a concern about the recent change in his House’s rate.”
“How dare you increase the cost of our escort in this way!” He shouted, standing and pounding the table. “You do realize how many people depend on those food stores, and that we will raise the cost of those shipments to compensate?!”
“I do know precisely just how many people depend on those deliveries, master Bethel, and would dare not impugn the necessity of what your house provides the Realm as well as the Trader’s Fold and even my own home on Teayl.” Lorica began with authority. “But those great sums of vital food are not the only thing your granary ships are transporting across the Bay, are they?”
The master of the house looked perplexed. “Why Lord Alwitter, whatever do you mean?”
“We have told your merchants, ship captains and dockmasters this at all the ports they land, and now I will tell you as well: you must stop transporting Shifter slaves illegally to and from the City of Realm to continue our arrangement at the current rate. You will be charged tenfold the current rate unless your actions change at once.”
“How dare you accuse house Bethel of such a thing!” the master screamed in anger. “We are guilty of no such crimes and refuse to pay this rate!”
Lorica waved over his right shoulder and a guard opened a side door of the hall, near the front, to a smaller room which was dark within. “After you, master.” Lorica gestured as they entered with a few others from the table.
Inside the room were two small windows and a round, short column rising to about waist height in the center of the hard, stone floor. From outside one window, a dim blue Stream vein was bent down the wall, across the floor and had been intentionally contorted across the flat-topped column for easy access, then back out the other window and into the City. A small child in a full-body black cloak and long hood was held by the guards of House Kyrone, between where the Stream came and left the room. She was not permitted to speak or move.
“Shifter,” Lord Alwitter said callously. “Please show master Bethel how his ships have been used to transport Shifter slaves to the Realm.” I’m sorry. Forgive me, sister. He said to her in his mind, forcing himself to play a most loathsome role of just another noble exploiting a Shifter slave, ripped away from her parents at five and used by the Realm ever since. Tonight, brave Shifter, I will see you again. Hold on. The Bessan Shifted the Stream and showed the master, in his mind, what he needed to see to confirm he had been false in his outrage. The Stream always knew the truth.
“We will look into this at once, Lord Alwitter.” He said as he left the Streamroom without further protest.
In the cold, pitch dark of the catacombs, Bessan Shifter slaves gathered near a very small fire on the cold stone ground. The Shifters that lived down here could not take much light in their eyes; being raised in near total darkness had caused them to become acclimated. They survived on the spoiled foods and other wastes ejected from the upper levels for them to eat. The Realm viewed Shifters as an abomination that could be exploited for power and gain without guilt. They were sub-Human and easily expandable since more of them were born and harvested all the time amidst the common folk of Realm. Thousands of Bessan Shifters had been enslaved over the decades, and thousands more Jeshans had been killed outright upon discovery. Only the Bessans could be controlled.
At this point in the resting hours the Bessan who had been in the room with Lorica earlier that day was glad not to have been killed or consumed by the Stream in her duty as so many others were. She was alive, but huddled in her thick robes against the catacomb wall, awaiting the scraps of the day’s last meal.
Somewhere far away, echoing in the empty chambers of the undercity, she heard something coming. Others had noticed as well and directed themselves towards the sounds nervously. From out of the shadows, two grown men emerged, sloshing out of the ankle-deep water of the unused canal. One of them wore tan, etched leather armor, had flowing, thick hair and a long bloody spear in his right hand while the other was concealed by a black mask, black gloves and a long, pale blue cloak with a hood. The man in the mask spoke quietly. “Come with me Shifters, and do not try to snap the Stream. You are going to get out of here right now. If there are any more of you down here, signal for them at once. We do not have much time.”
The Shifters stood to attention and gathered around at his request. “Hold hands and grab a hold of Doren here. He will take you to the exit. Do not try to snap the Stream and stay silent or we will be revealed. You are going to be free if you can stay together and follow orders.” The man in the mask said earnestly. The children took direction and formed into a line behind the spear-wielding warrior.
“Let’s go kids,” he said with a sort of antic disposition. “We’re going on a boat ride!”
One of them lingered, looking at the man in the cloak before joining the others
“It’s you.” She said. “From the Streamroom.”
“Yes,” Lorica said, keeping his mask up so that she would not see his face, “I am sorry for what I had to do, but you will be free now. Come with me and you will never have to Shift against your will ever again.” He finished, smiling under his mask, and taking the girl’s hand, they ran off together into the shadow beyond the light of the fire.