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The Singer Elizabeth Hunter 2022/7/22 11:38:34

Malachi glanced to Leo. “Explain.”

Leo said, “There is a movement to solve the Irina problem. Critics are calling it ‘compulsion.’ Basically, some elders want to force the Irina back into retreats.”

Max said, “They claim it is for their own protection and to protect the future of the Irin race. It’s gaining popularity among younger scribes who want the opportunity to find a mate—as slim as that chance may be—and among scribes who see our race dying off if nothing is done.”

“Our race is dying off,” Malachi said.

“Yes,” Max said, “but trying to force the Irina back into the retreats where they were all but slaughtered isn’t exactly the wisest way of coaxing them back, is it?”

“All the elders want the Irina back,” Leo said, “but they don’t agree how to achieve it. Gabriel works for Konrad, who is more traditionalist. He says the reason Irina fled was because of the retreats, so it’s useless to try to force them back. He’s proposing to reform the full council. Irin and Irina elders, the way it used to be. That way the Irina would know they have a full vote by their own elders and not just a bunch of old scribes.”

Malachi narrowed his eyes, watching the road as he mulled over what Leo and Max had told him. “Max, how are the elders chosen?”

“By the watchers,” Max said.

“But I thought the watchers were chosen by the Council.”

Leo said, “It’s not a perfect system. Irina elders were chosen more democratically. Singers voted based on regions. Seven regions for seven council members.”

“Keep in mind,” Max said, “it was easier for the Irina, because they were more centralized. Most singers were in retreats and didn’t move around much, whereas the scribes were scattered. Different cities. We move much more. Having the watchers choose the seven elders does make a kind of sense.”

“Yes, but it also leaves a lot to be desired, considering there is no check on the council’s power,” Leo said. “Corruption is inevitable.”

“It’s inevitable in any government, Leo.” Malachi took the turnoff from the highway. They were only half an hour outside the city that governed the Irin people. He knew that he must have been there before, but he didn’t remember it. It all looked foreign. He felt as if he were stepping into an alien world, and he had no idea who was a friend and who was an enemy. Instinct told him that nothing in Vienna could be taken at face value, including the intentions of the scribe they were meeting.

He knew little about Gabriel except that he was Damien’s brother-in-law, and it was possible that Damien’s actions had led to the death of Gabriel’s mate. Hardly surprising the two didn’t get along. Gabriel also worked for Konrad. And Konrad sounded like someone Malachi might agree with.

But then, politicians were liars. That, he knew, was true of every race.

The very word made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.

“Tell us more about the Irina in Vienna,” Malachi said.

Max and Leo had been chatting in Russian, but they switched back to English. “The Irina who have been out publicly are those whose mates are very pro-compulsion. They’ve been talking about ‘tradition,’ but there’s little traditional about their conversation. They’re talking about other Irina as if they were the enemy. Talking about ‘the good of our children’ and ‘meeting the needs of our scribes.’ Acting like all they want is to be protected. The few Irina I’ve met would spit in their faces.”

“So the Irina are back, according to them, and eager to go into retreats again? I find that hard to believe.”

“Those speaking publicly claim to speak for their sisters, but we have no idea where they’ve even been hiding for the last two hundred years.”

Max said, “There are rumors that some of the old council hid their wives and wouldn’t let them leave their homes. Claimed it was for their own protection. This happened for years. Then a few started coming back to the city. Now, there is a small Irina presence, but it’s still very quiet. Out of the public eye. Nothing like what it used to be, according to the older scribes. But it’s Vienna, so they’re safe.”

“And now we have the complication of Ava, as well,” Leo said.

Malachi glared. “Ava’s not a complication.”

“She is in the sense that we still don’t know where she comes from.” Leo’s voice was logical, but his words scraped Malachi’s nerves. “And the council will want to know. Have you heard from Rhys?”

Rhys had rented a car and driven ahead to Vienna days before. He’d told Malachi and Leo he needed to check in with a few “associates.” Plus, he was the one arranging a meeting with Gabriel since the two scribes had always been friendly.

“I need to go,” Max said. “I’m meeting with a few people here. I think Ava and Damien came through the city on their way to Sari. I’m going to try to get more information in case Gabriel can’t or won’t tell you what he knows.”

“Good luck,” Malachi said. “Keep us updated.”

“Call me after you’ve spoken to Gabriel.”

Leo put the phone away and silence filled the car.

After a few minutes, the lights of Vienna shone in the distance and traffic started to thicken.

“You know I didn’t mean ‘complication’ in a bad way, don’t you?” Leo finally asked.

“It’s more hopeful than anything else, isn’t it? Finding Ava.”

“Just that if Ava was out there for so many years, then that could mean there are others we don’t know about, too.” The longing in Leo’s voice was almost painful. “There could be other Irina out there. Not only the survivors of the Rending, but others.”

Malachi shrugged. “It’s possible. They’d be outsiders, though. Different from the humans around them.”

“Ava said that the humans thought she was mentally ill,” Leo said quietly. “They thought she was crazy.”

The mere idea infuriated him in a way he couldn’t articulate.

He said, “If there are other Irina out there—lost Irina—”

“We need to find them.”