Excerpt from Ashwin
Del circled Kora and trailed her fingers down her back. “Do you know the story of the Two Princesses, Kora?”
“Which two?” She grinned at Maricela to break the tension. “This sector is overrun with them.”
“The first two.” Del picked up her sketchpad and a charcoal pencil. “Maricela’s mother, Juana. And her aunt, Adriana.”
“Only what I picked up from the murals at the palace.”
Del’s hand moved quickly, the soft scratch of her pencil as hypnotic as the way her voice sank into an easy rhythm. “Adriana was a warrior. She fought for her people, killed for them if necessary. She fell in love with her bodyguard and challenged the Prophet himself for the right to marry him. In the paintings, she holds the heart of her people in her hands…but if the occasion called for it, Adriana could tear the heart out of an enemy’s chest. Her spine was pure steel.”
The scratching paused as Del glanced at Maricela, a smile curving her full lips. “But Juana was different. She married Adriana’s brother, the Prophet’s only son and heir. She and Adriana became sisters and friends. Juana had no gift for death, but there was nothing she touched that wouldn’t grow. No person she touched who wasn’t moved.” Del nudged Maricela with her foot. “No child she loved who didn’t thrive.”
Maricela nodded, her eyes bright with unshed tears.
Del went back to sketching. “Adriana’s spine was steel, but Juana’s was made of roses. And because men can be fools who only recognize one kind of strength, they underestimated her. When the wars came, Juana bent with the wind. She grew stronger and fiercer as she wrapped herself tight around the people she loved. She became a wall of thorns, and no one could touch the people she called hers without bleeding for their trouble.”
After a moment of silence, Del turned the sketchpad around. The bold design filled the page in a long vertical line—two sets of vines weaving in and around one another, with blooming flowers and tightly furled buds nestled between sharp thorns.
“I think you’re like Juana,” Del said, her voice still a husky murmur. “Your gift is life. There’s power in that.”
Kora’s fingers trembled as she reached out and touched the paper. “It’s beautiful.”
“Thank you.” Del tore the paper free and handed it to her before moving to the table that held her tattooing equipment. “I don’t give the spine of roses often. Not many have a heart big enough to carry the burden.”
“Are you sure that I do?” The question slipped out, unbidden. There were few things in life that Kora had never second-guessed, and her care for others was the biggest. The most important. It had been more than a job, or even her life’s work. It had been a calling.
But now, she questioned everything.
“Of course I’m sure.” Del returned with a marker in her hand and tilted Kora’s chin up. “But that’s not enough for you, because you’re not a believer.”
Kora had tried to study Sector One’s concept of God. But he was nebulous, his message and character changing depending on the situation, on interpretation, even on the person writing or speaking about him. As a scientist, Kora couldn’t reconcile the wild variances, the seemingly human failings in a being who was supposed to be infallible.
But there were some things she understood without hesitation. “I believe in the Rios family, and in your abilities. If you say I deserve to wear Juana’s roses, I’ll wear them.”
Del didn’t release her chin. “You’ve looked into Ashwin’s eyes. Did you see nothingness staring back at you?”
She’d seen confusion, puzzlement. Anger. Terror. And, just once, a need so sharp that she ached to remember it. “No.”
“It takes a big heart to see past the death. I’ve always wondered what Juana would have seen in the eyes of the last Makhai soldier who came to One. Perhaps the same thing you see in Ashwin’s.” Del crouched down so they were on eye level. “And remember, Kora. There was nothing she touched that didn’t grow.”
The words played over and over in Kora’s mind as she settled into the seat Del indicated. She considered them as Del prepared her skin, as the dull buzz of the tattoo machine filled the room, even through the first angry pricks of the needle.
At one time, she would have believed Del without hesitation. If she was talking about healing, about work, then Kora would have had no doubts at all. But emotion was trickier. People were hard to predict.
A Makhai soldier? That was impossible.