“Is it really true?” AsaHi asked.
Zemi turned his attention from the open window to peer down at her. The girl tromped up next to the Dreigiau with a you-will-answer-my-question determination in her eyes.
“Is what really true?” his gravely voice murmured. For the moment, the Arweinydd looked as close to exhausted as she had ever seen him come.
“Did Tsu almost turn into a…” she swallowed, not wanting to think of the terrible possibility. “You know — one of them?”
The Dreigiau’s face was quiet as he flopped down into a sitting position. Right there on the floor, leaning with his back against the wall.
So much for high and mighty elegance.
“It was close,” the Dreigiau admitted. “Closer than I wanted. But he should be okay, as long as he remains here in this city. Beyond that, I cannot say what will happen. Zento and I are working on it.”
“How?” she positioned herself so that the two of them were face to face.
“Hrm?” he did not seem to want to meet her eyes.
“How did something like this happen?”
“Zerom,” Zemi murmured.
“Zerom? Isn’t that… your–?” AsaHi tilted her head while sucking on her bottom lip.
“Yeah. Though, I don’t know if you can call someone who does things like this to the people you care about much of a ‘brother.’ What do you think?” His teal eyes flickered over to the girl in a questioning manner.
“I don’t know. Sometimes brothers do things they regret. But, usually nothing like this.”
“That’s kinda what I thought, too.”
“The Marked,” she shuddered at the very word. “They were regular people once, right?”
Memories of the black hair… grey skin… dead eyes… the claws and fangs and hissing death… rose up in her mind. To think that TsuYa, one of the boys she had grown up with, had almost become like those creatures, was terrible beyond measure.
“Yes. They came from Nefol,” Zemi answered. “Zerom would strike at them first because they are the most advanced Earthians due to the magic that I introduced to them. No doubt he wants to add them to his collection.”
“Collection?” AsaHi frowned. The offhand manner that the Dreigiau spoke in struck a sour note in her mind.
“Zerom has seen the power. Maybe he’s jealous of what I have gained through associating with this living world,” he grunted. “Perhaps he thinks that taking their spirit by force will lead him to the power that he wants. But, this only transforms them into ones Marked by his hand.”
She grumbled balefully, “As if we are nothing more than pieces in a game.”
“As far apart as you believe us to be, I have discovered it is not so,” his eyes were very deep as they gazed into her face. “Your kind and my kind have a natural bond. One that goes deeper than anything that even I can fathom. And it is through this connection we both grow stronger.”
“Even for Zerom?”
“Very likely. But he’s going about it all wrong,” the Dreigiau shook his head.
AsaHi frowned. Her irritation was plainly showing now, “As if there is a right way to do something like this?”
“What do you mean?” Zemi pursed his lips.
The girl pursed her lips, “Both of you…”
He peered up, one finger touching the tip of his chin.
“Both of you are… just… just… playing games with our lives,” her voice cracked.
The Dreigiau watched her with a growing surprise.
“Just because you have the power to do things, doesn’t mean that you should!”
“You talk like it’s my fault that Zerom is meddling where he shouldn’t be. I have nothing to do with his little charade,” he shrugged.
“Is that all you have to say?” AsaHi grated, lifting her hands in the air at his display of indifference. “So what’s going to happen now? He makes you angry. You make him angry. Then the two of you go at it, right? You and your winged people against him and his Marked!”
“Did you ever stop to think that maybe we don’t want to be a part of this? That we just want to live simple, normal lives?”
“Meaning?” he pressed his lips together. One fang showed clearly in the dim light.
“Meaning… Meaning that we could be happy without any of this!” AsaHi’s hands lifted above her head, indicating everything around them. Everything that the Dreigiau had made. Everything material and immaterial. Every winged soul upon the floating island. And in that one motion, she rendered it all meaningless.
Zemi’s face paled. It was a strange thing to watch. Maybe it was a reaction of anger — hopefully it was of shame. “How… could you say something like that?”
“Is it worth it?” she retorted, face heating.
“Worth it?” the Dreigiau eyed her sharply as he echoed.
“Is it worth it if it’s only going to bring people pain?”
“Pain? I brought these very people – your people — from the brink of death and into a civilization that they could have never even begun to imagine on their own!” his palms pressed against the floor.
“At the expense of what? Our happiness?”
“We would be happy! Without the School. Without the Dragon Apprentices. Without your magic! Without Awakening!”
Zemi’s mouth opened, but no words followed. His cheeks flushed the color of dragon’s anger.
Now that AsaHi was heated, the spiteful words just poured out of her with little thought, “You and your irresponsible games – messing with things without even thinking about the consequences! It makes you no better than Zerom!”
“I am not my brother!” Zemi rose to his feet with a sharp snap.
AsaHi took a step backwards, realizing she had pushed her luck too far.
“Who are you to judge my motives?!” he demanded, his voice crackling with power. It hardly sounded anything like Zemi at all. “You know nothing about what I’ve done for your people! Nothing! So don’t talk to me as if you do!”
She didn’t dare to look at him. Her hands were shaking.
I won’t apologize! I just won’t… not when I know I’m right!
“AsaHi,” his voice growled in irritation. “Stop it. I’m not going to hurt you.”
She chanced a glance upward.
Zemi was standing over her, very tall, his arms crossed in front of his chest. The wildness to his features had subsided somewhat. But there was still anger. Anger and hurt.
“How… how do I know that you wouldn’t?” her teeth were chattering but impertinence still got the best of her.
“Because,” the Dreigiau grumbled, “That’s just not how I work.”
“Then tell me – how do you work?” she fought to regain her composure. “Tell me how you’re any different from your brother.”
“You couldn’t begin to understand,” as the anger drained from his features, it looked as if a great weight had dropped onto the Dreigiau’s shoulders.
“That’s not good enough.”
Zemi peered up. “What did you say?”
“That’s not good enough!” her voice grew stronger. “Whether I understand anything or nothing at all, it still comes down to the fact that you started this. You and your magic and your Dragon Apprentices and your School. By the Light, you better take responsibility for what you made!”
The Arweinydd blinked down at her, a disturbed expression on his face.
“Don’t play games with the lives of others, Zemi Dreigiau, or you’re just like Zerom!” she added sharply.
Zemi ran his tongue over his lips. “You’re… right…”
The girl finally fell silent. Anger she expected. But agreement she did not.
“I came here thinking I could do some good for you people.” His eyes reflected in sorrow, “I never believed it could come to something like this.”
The girl peered down at her feet. As the heat of anger left her face, she began to feel a bit guilty.
Maybe I was too hard on him. But he has to understand…
“I do understand.”
AsaHi blinked up with a start. It always unnerved her when he listened to her thoughts.
“I do understand. And I agree.” There was a troubled sound to his voice, “And you’re right…”
She could see flickers of thoughts flash behind his eyes. AsaHi began to regret the whole conversation even more. “What are you going to do?”
A shifting darkness rose to his face. Darkness that bordered on vengeance. A wild, terrible anger.
“Zemi,” she was so concerned she didn’t even think to use his title. “Zemi, what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to do what you said. I’m going to take responsibility for this,” his voice grated. “I’m going to stop Zerom.”