Akarnae, p.22
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       Akarnae, p.22

         Part #1 of The Medoran Chronicles series by Lynette Noni
 

  “It’s something you’ll have to discover on your own, child. And you will, when the time is right.”

  “I see,” Alex said. She was disappointed but she also had a feeling that this Lady Mystique wasn’t going to say any more, regardless of how hard she pressed. “What can you tell me?” Alex tried instead.

  “Lady Mystique can help you with your search. For today, that is all, but it will be enough,” she said. “Next time, perhaps more.”

  “My search?” Alex asked, uncertain as to what the woman meant.

  Lady Mystique reached out to pull a book off the shelf, placing it into Alex’s arms. She then beckoned for Alex to follow as she led the way around the store, grasping random objects and handing them over. Finally she stopped at the counter, motioning for Alex to place all the items on the glass top.

  “What is all this?” Alex finally asked.

  “It’s what you came for,” the woman replied.

  Alex looked over the items, confused.

  “This will be your gift for Jonathon,” Lady Mystique said, pointing to the first book, Advanced Metaphysics: A Technological Perspective.

  “I don’t understand,” Alex said, wrinkling her nose at the brain-numbing title. “Who’s Jonathon?”

  Lady Mystique looked at her as if she was slow, and something clicked in Alex’s head. “You mean Bear’s brother, Johnny?”

  “Indeed.”

  It was then that Alex realised the items on the counter were Kaldoras presents, ones that the old woman had hand-picked for her.

  “You’ll give this to Blake,” Lady Mystique said, pointing to another book in the pile. It looked old—impossibly old—and yet it was perfectly intact, with obscure-looking symbols carved into the cover.

  “Dorothy will love this,” the woman continued, handing over a dainty brooch. It was made out of a glowing silver-like metal that almost looked to be emanating light.

  “This will be for the one you call ‘Gammy’.” Lady Mystique held out another book, this one tattered and falling apart. The title was handwritten, and poorly at that. From what Alex could read, it was a homemade recipe book.

  The old woman passed over the last object—an antique dagger. She pulled it from its sheath and, despite its apparent age, the blade still gleamed. It seemed to be made of the same kind of silver metal as the brooch.

  “This will be perfect for William’s collection,” she told Alex, stroking the weapon fondly. “It has no equal.”

  Alex looked at the items in front of her with awe. How…?

  “Lady Mystique knows all,” the old woman said.

  Alex groaned. “Don’t tell me, you can read my mind?”

  “No.” Lady Mystique wheezed slightly in what Alex presumed was a laugh. “Not even I can manage that. Perhaps when you first arrived, but not now. Your confusion is simply written all over your face.”

  There was so much of that explanation that Alex wanted to ask about, not the least of which was the fact that she didn’t think Lady Mystique was referring to her arrival into the store. But she let it go, somehow certain that the woman wouldn’t reveal her secrets.

  “These are the gifts you came searching for,” Lady Mystique said. “Will that be all?”

  Alex looked through the glass casing on the counter and—not entirely sure why—she asked, “Can I please have that as well?” She pointed to a delicate charm bracelet made out of the same glowing metal as the dagger and the brooch. The charms on the bracelet were miniscule prancing horses, all frozen in different stages of movement. The light reflecting in and around them made it seem like they were actually moving, circling the bracelet. It was beautiful, entrancing even.

  “A lovely trinket,” said the old woman. “Who, may I ask, is it for?”

  “My roommate,” Alex said, surprising herself. At first she had wanted the bracelet for herself, but when asked the question her answer had been natural. Obvious, even. “She doesn’t like me very much, but she loves horses. I think.” D.C. was graded Epsilon with Alex for Equestrian Skills, so it made sense.

  “I’m certain Delucia will love this,” Lady Mystique agreed, pulling it out and placing it in a box.

  Delucia? Was that D.C.’s real name? How strange.

  She watched while Lady Mystique gift-wrapped the items and it was only when the old woman placed them into a bag that Alex realised she had yet to pay.

  “How much do I owe you?” she asked, pulling out her money pouch. Looking at all the gifts—they were perfectly wrapped in shiny paper with bows and nametags—Alex hoped she had enough from her allowance.

  Lady Mystique just handed her the bag and patted her gently on the hand. “It is I who will owe you, Alexandra Jennings.”

  What did that mean?

  “Um—but how much for the gifts?” Alex asked again, not at all comfortable with how the other woman was looking at her. Admiration. Hope. Sorrow. Those ancient eyes showed a myriad of emotions that Alex wanted to run away from.

  It felt like a lifetime before Lady Mystique looked away from her and said, “There’s no charge for you.”

  “No,” Alex protested. “That’s very kind, but you have to let me pay for them. Otherwise they’re not really my gifts to give.”

  “A gift given is a gift received,” said the woman, her voice hinting at a depth of wisdom Alex couldn’t even begin to comprehend. “And a gift received can become a gift given. We’ll meet again, Alexandra Jennings.”

  Alex had to blink a few times before she accepted the fact that Lady Mystique had literally disappeared before her eyes. She’d faded out like a mist, dissolving into nothing.

  “I’ll just let myself out, then?” Alex called into the empty store, and only a quiet wheezing laugh answered her as she headed to the door.

  It was a testament to how much Alex had learned to accept odd events since arriving in Medora that she didn’t run screaming down the street. Instead, she walked calmly back to the Ronnigans’ house, replaying the woman’s parting words over and over in her mind.

  A gift given is a gift received. And a gift received can become a gift given.

  Twenty-Seven

  Alex was still deep in thought when she reached the Ronnigans’ house, but the moment she walked in the front door she knew something was different. There were loud voices—new voices—coming from the dining room, which meant that Bear’s older brothers must have arrived.

  Curious to finally meet them, Alex raced upstairs to hide her presents before hurrying back down again. In her excitement, she failed to pay attention to her surroundings, and at the entrance to the dining room she tripped over one of Evie’s dolls, tumbled forwards, and landed face-first on the solid floor with a loud, “Oomph!”

  Alex rolled onto her back, completely dazed, and groaned with humiliation. Her timid voice echoed in the now silent room as she asked, “I don’t suppose we can act like that didn’t just happen?”

  Her question broke the gaping silence, and suddenly everyone was laughing.

  Alex flushed brightly as William walked over and offered his hand, pulling her to her feet. “That’s one way to enter a room,” he said. At least he was trying to be polite—Jordan and Bear were both hunched over, laughing so hard they were crying. Great friends, those two.

  “Yeah,” Alex said, pressing her fingers to the side of her face that had taken the brunt of the fall. “I’ve always maintained that if you’re going to do something, do it well.”

  William chuckled in agreement and led her towards the table where the others were sitting. Dorothy was in the middle of scolding her daughter for leaving toys lying around, and Evie quickly got up to give Alex a hug and a watery apology, to which Alex hurried to reassure the younger girl that she wasn’t hurt.

  “Just my pride,” she mumbled to herself as Evie went back to her mother.

  Alex then turned to face the new family members sitting at the table. “Hi,” she said awkwardly. “I’m Alex.”

  To their credit, they didn’t laug
h at her again. But their eyes were still shining with mirth.

  “We’ve heard a lot about you, Alex,” said the elder of the two young men, standing up to shake her hand. “I’m so pleased to see it’s all true, if that spectacular entrance is anything to judge by. I’m Johnny, by the way, and this is Blake.”

  As Blake reached out to shake her hand next, Alex tried to make sense of Johnny’s words. What had they heard about her? She looked to Bear for more information but he skilfully avoided eye contact. Whatever his brothers had heard must not have been overly complimentary.

  Alex tapped her fingernails on the table until Bear finally glanced up at her, and she sent him a questioning look. It might have seemed more like an accusatory glare, but whatever.

  “Hey!” he said. “I’ve seen you in PE and, let’s face it, you’ve had your moments.”

  “That doesn’t mean you had to share those moments,” she said, feeling embarrassed all over again.

  “I didn’t share all of them,” he said, and Alex felt some relief. Until he added, “Jordan told them about the rest.”

  She promptly transferred her glare towards her other friend, who just smiled and waved in response.

  Alex turned back to Bear’s brothers and said, as seriously as she could, “Whatever you’ve heard, they were lying.”

  Blake breathed out on another laugh. “Don’t worry, Alex. I think we’ve just seen for ourselves how amazingly coordinated you are.”

  She felt as if her face was on fire, but she rallied on and said, “That was for your benefit. I didn’t want either of you to be intimidated by my awesomeness—which I’m sure you’ve heard all about—and I chose to sacrifice my dignity to even the playing field.”

  “How kind of you,” Johnny said, the corner of his mouth twitching with suppressed amusement.

  “I’m actually still feeling a little intimidated,” Blake admitted. “Do you mind going and doing that all over again? Just so I can feel a little less threatened by your—ah—awesomeness.”

  Alex had to bite back a smile of her own. It wouldn’t do her any good to encourage them. “I’m sorry,” she said, her voice full of false regret. “Only one show per day.”

  “I guess we’ll just have to look forward to tomorrow, then,” Blake said, giving her a sly wink.

  “All right, everyone,” Dorothy said. “That’s enough teasing. Alex, dear, will you help me bring the food out? We’ll do our part now and then we can leave the cleaning for the boys to do later.”

  Alex eagerly followed the other woman into the kitchen, happy for any excuse to leave the room and regain her equilibrium. As she helped dish out the meal, she thought about Johnny and Blake. While Bear and Evie took after their father with their dark hair and eyes, the two older brothers looked more like their mother. They both had light brown hair just like Dorothy, and while Johnny had inherited his father’s darker eyes, Blake had the same piercing blue ones as his mother. They also both seemed to be casual and easy-going like Bear. Alex was sure that once she got over her embarrassment she would get on with them just fine.

  When they all sat down for dinner, Alex had the chance to ask Johnny and Blake what they did for work.

  “I’m a Techno,” Johnny answered. At her blank look, he added, “Dad said you were sheltered, but I had no idea—”

  “Johnny,” William interrupted, his warning clear.

  “Sorry, Alex. I’ve just never met anyone who hasn’t heard of a Techno. Or a Warden, for that matter.” Johnny shook his head as if amazed and then said, “Technos are upper-level Chemists who manipulate technology to sustain and advance communication and integration. The latter involves the transference of matter—like how stuff is transported through TCDs. I don’t have much to do with that, though, since I’m in the communications sub-division. We get to work on TCD applications and software, continually generating new ideas to bring to the market.”

  “Sounds interesting,” Alex said. She didn’t know enough about TCDs to understand what he was talking about, but it was clear he enjoyed his career choice. Even so, she didn’t particularly want to get caught up in a conversation that she knew would only hurt her brain, so she turned her attention to Blake and asked, “What about you?”

  “I’m with the ISDS—the Inter-Species Diplomatic Service. Mostly I liaise with Shadow Walkers, but I’ve also spent some time working with Flips and with Jarnocks.”

  She tried to keep her expression neutral, not wanting to let on that she had no idea what he’d just said.

  “I know what you’re thinking,” Blake said.

  Alex seriously doubted that.

  “Most people say I’m too young to be in the Service,” he said, “but that’s just how it worked out. The ISDS recruited me straight out of school and I continued my training in the field. They’d never let me out there on my own if they didn’t believe I could handle myself.”

  He trailed off and Alex realised that she was supposed to say something.

  “That sounds awesome.” She cringed at her lame response and tried again. “It must be really interesting work. Especially with the… Shadow Walkers.”

  What on earth was a Shadow Walker? Wasn’t that what Jordan had called their SOSAC teacher, Caspar Lennox?

  “Yeah, they’re interesting all right,” Blake agreed. “But they’re about as easy to read as a rock, so negotiating with them is near impossible.”

  “I’ll bet,” Alex said, as if she knew what she was talking about. Jordan sniggered from beside her and she elbowed him in the ribs.

  The conversation drifted to safer topics and Alex was left thinking about what she’d learned.

  “How old are they?” she whispered to Jordan when everyone else was busy talking.

  “Blake’s four years older than us and Johnny’s five years older,” he whispered back.

  “How did they end up with such cool jobs, since they’re still so young?”

  “Students who don’t qualify for Akarnae pick a specialisation to focus on when they’re fourteen. At eighteen they graduate and either get a job or continue studying elsewhere.”

  Jordan paused to take another bite of food before he continued, “Both the ISDS and ChemTech—which is the research organisation that recruits Chemists to train them into Technos—usually require four more years of study before recruitment, but both Johnny and Blake were exceptions. Johnny’s so brilliant that he was hacking into secure TCD servers when he was thirteen, and Blake not only graduated at the top of his class in Languages, Politics, and Inter-Species Relations, but he also smashed through all the previous records when he took his exams.”

  “Wow,” Alex said, impressed. “So they’re both really smart?”

  “The whole family is,” Jordan said. “It’s ridiculous.”

  Alex nodded as she recalled Bear’s amazing potential in Chemistry. She was about to comment on it but she remembered something else and instead asked, “What’s a Shadow Walker? And the other things Blake mentioned? I didn’t understand anything he—”

  “Who wants dessert?”

  Their attention was diverted when Gammy placed a steaming chocolate pudding on the table. Alex’s mouth watered at the sight and she looked up at Jordan.

  “We’ll talk later,” he promised.

  But later never came, since after dessert they were herded into the lounge room to uphold a Ronnigan family tradition. Every Kaldoras Eve the family sat together to share their memories of the year that was and talk about the things they were grateful for. When Alex’s turn came, she simply said, “I’m grateful to be here.”

  Everyone awwwwed, but when she looked at Jordan and Bear she knew they understood the ‘here’ that her words encompassed. When she’d first arrived in Medora, all she’d wanted was to find a way back home. But now, even while still missing her parents, she couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

  And that scared her more than anything.

  Twenty-Eight

  Alex was woken at the crack of dawn the nex
t day to open presents with the family, and she was overwhelmed by the unexpected gifts she received.

  Jordan and Bear had pooled together to get her a remote ComTCD so she could always stay in contact with them. The little holographic Device was a lustrous gold colour, and she immediately fell in love with it.

  “But wait, there’s more,” Jordan said after she thanked them. “Part of it’s from Johnny, too. He’s added some special apps that haven’t even been released to the public yet! I’ll be borrowing this baby for sure!”

  “Let her have it for at least five minutes, Jordan,” Johnny called from across the room.

  Jordan grumbled a little, but he eventually surrendered the ComTCD to Alex, and she moved it out of his sight while she reached for her next gift. She gasped when she opened the box to find the dress she’d been helping Dorothy create over the past week.

  “We wanted you to have something nice to wear to the Gala,” Dorothy said, handing her another box that she said was from William. Inside was a pair of shoes that matched the dress perfectly.

  Alex looked quizzically at William who just smiled back and said, “Do I really look like the type of person who knows the difference between stilettos and wedges? No. I’m just the financier. But I wanted to get you something, even if I thought it was best for you if I didn’t choose them myself.”

  She was touched by their generosity and thanked them both profusely before reaching for her next gift, which was from Gammy. Inside was a single sheet of paper with the title: TOP SECRET. Alex’s smile widened as she read the rest of the words and realised that it was the recipe for Gammy’s famous apple pie, secret sauce included. When Alex looked across the room and caught the older woman’s eyes, Gammy pressed a finger to her lips and winked.

  “Open mine next, Lexie! Open mine!” Evie cried, shoving her gift into Alex’s face.

  Inside was a small bunch of wildflowers glued to a hairclip. They were beautiful, and Alex immediately clipped them into her hair, causing the little girl to clap with happiness.

  “You can keep them forever!” Evie exclaimed. She was so excited that Alex didn’t want to ruin the moment by telling her that the flowers would eventually die.

 
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LYNETTE NONI SERIES:

  • The Medoran Chronicles
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