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The Singer Elizabeth Hunter 2022/7/22 11:38:25

“She wants to know what you can do.”

Ava blinked away from the aching memory of her dream the night before. She looked between her translator, the blond girl whose hair Sari had been braiding the previous afternoon, and her tormentor, the fearsome Irina named Mala whom she’d met the first day.

There couldn’t be two more opposite females on the planet. The girl, who had introduced herself as Brooke and sounded American, had the kind of blond hair that almost looked silver. Her eyes were a clear crystal blue, and she couldn’t have been more than twelve. She was slim and tall for her age, but her face still carried the rounded cheeks of youth. Her figure was just starting to develop, but she still sported lean muscle that marked her as an athlete.

“What do you mean ‘what I can do’? Like… my résumé?”

Brooke snorted and looked at Mala, who was running in front of them. Mala’s smooth skin glowed with perspiration, her long legs pumped up the hills and over the meadows as they ran through the countryside. She was dark-skinned and fiercely lovely in a way that made Ava envious. Her skin was the color of rich teak, and her hair was shorn close to her head in a cap that showed off her graceful neck and shoulders. She looked like she could have been featured in a fashion magazine, except for the vicious scar that ran from her jaw, across her neck, and down to her collar. But it was her eyes, twin pools of black fire, that made Ava want to photograph her.

Ava couldn’t help but feel thin and drawn between the two females who were pulsing with life. One young and delicate, the other vibrating with old power, they were opposite in every way the world might see. Yet something intangible bound them together. Brooke had been sent with Ava and Mala as a translator since Ava wasn’t fluent in signing.

“Not like your résumé,” Brooke said.

Mala didn’t even stop, just raised her hand over her shoulder and flipped through signs so fast that Ava could scarcely pick them up. Brooke didn’t seem to have a problem, though.

“She wants to know what sports you played in school. If you’ve taken any martial arts. Things like that.”

“Uh…” Ava tried not to gasp as they jogged. She’d thought she was in shape. She was wrong. “I didn’t really… play sports in… school.”

More signs tossed into the air from Mala.

“She says you’re in good shape for someone who doesn’t play sports.”

“Sure doesn’t feel that way right now.”

Brook laughed. “You’ll get used to it. You’re keeping up and she’s not going easy on us. Mala’s the hardest trainer here.”

“I hike a lot with my job,” Ava said. “Go to remote places like this. And usually I’m carrying a lot of equipment. So it’s probably from that.”

The question had come from Brooke, not Mala, which caused Ava to blink and look over at the girl. “What?”

“Did you hike a lot at high altitudes? That probably helps. Even though there are mountains here, we’re actually not that high up, so the air is thicker.”

“What places did you go?” The girl’s eyes were alive with curiosity.

Ava managed a weak smile. “Almost everywhere. I’ve been to every continent on earth.”

“Yep, even Antarctica.”

That drew a surprised look from Mala, who turned briefly with curious eyes.

Ava continued. “I’d been through most of Europe by the time I was sixteen. School trips. My mom took me places, too. Then, when I got to college, I traveled in South America for a few semesters. I minored in Spanish, so…” She paused to catch her breath. “I took some pictures in Venezuela one summer and my mom showed a friend of hers. She was an editor at a travel magazine, and… she asked to see more.”

“That’s so cool,” Brooke said, her own breath coming harder the longer they jogged. “So you started working for a magazine?”

“I did what you could call freelance work in college. Just for my mom’s friend. Any time I traveled for school, I let her know where I was going, and she’d let me know if she wanted pictures. After I graduated, I was on staff for a while there, then I started doing freelance work again, only this time I got paid more and I got to pick what jobs I wanted.”

Brooke’s blue eyes were wide. “So, are you really rich?”

Ava snorted, wiping the sweat from her forehead. Mala might have been glowing, but Ava was dripping. “Not from my photography work. I make enough to get by on that, but not by much. I have money, but it’s from my father. He’s really rich and he set up a trust fund for me when I was a baby. I got control of it when I was twenty-three. So I can kind of go wherever I want as long as I don’t get too crazy.”

The girl grinned. “Nice.”

Ava attempted a shrug. “I think I’d rather have had my dad than the money. But what are you gonna do?”

“Nothing,” she said flatly. “There’s nothing to do.” Before Ava could question her, Brooke continued. “I don’t have a dad, either.”

Ava remembered Malachi telling her how precious children were to the Irin. “Where is he?”

“I was born in Virginia. My mom and dad… they lived on their own. The closest scribe house was in Arlington, but we never went there. They would have made my dad patrol and fight, and he didn’t want to leave my mom and me. My mom was really paranoid. She lost all her family in the Rending. So we were just living with the humans, trying to blend in.”

Brooke shrugged. “We don’t know. Not really. You can want to be left alone, but that doesn’t mean it will happen. One night, my dad just didn’t come home. Didn’t call. My mom was frantic. Then later that night, she started crying.” Brooke drifted off, and Ava could see the haunted grief in her eyes. “I was only eight, and I’ve never heard anything like it.”

Mala’s eyes caught Ava’s as they ran, and Ava nodded in silent understanding. Brook’s father had been killed, and her mother only knew when she felt their connection snap. As Ava had known when the knife struck Malachi’s neck. She didn’t want to hear any more, but Brook kept talking.

“My mom woke me up the next morning, and her face was just… wrong. I knew he was dead. We were gone before lunch. We left everything there but some clothes and pictures. We came here.”

“And you never left?”

“Yes,” Brooke said. “Sari makes everyone safe.”

She saw Mala glance at the girl. Grief had joined the fire in her gaze, but she didn’t pause or slow down their run.

Ava had finally reached the endorphin high of running. Her legs felt looser and longer. Her heart pounded. The air was clear and biting, and the breeze felt liquid against her skin. She lifted her head and ran along the path with the two women, one old, the other painfully young, and suddenly she didn’t see their differences. Not a single one. The three ran together, bound by something far beyond the external.