Illumination 3.9: Provocation

Logan held their mother’s hand, but Kaylee insisted Seth carry her to the Portalry. She clung to him like an octopus, arms and legs twined around him, and rested her head on his shoulder. “You’ll come with us,” she told him.

“Nope,” he said cheerfully.

Logan’s head swiveled to scan the Portalry as soon as they stepped inside. A dozen portals were fixed opened, with Readers stationed by them. Many, many small children crowded the floor, swirling between the full-grown people like water between rocks. “Natalie’s not here.”

“And that’s why I can’t come,” Seth told Kaylee. “I’ve got to go get Natalie out of trouble. You know how it is. Wait, what am I thinking? You’re a troublemaker, too.” He transferred his attention to Logan. “You know how it is.”

Logan sighed. “Yeah.”

“Uh-uh,” said Kaylee, and tightened her grip. Seth opened his arms, but she didn’t budge.

“Kaylee,” said Valeria. “Let your brother go.”

Kaylee sniffed. “But if Natalie and Seth don’t come with us, I’ll cry!”

Logan tugged on Kaylee’s foot. “Come on. Don’t be a baby.” The little girl sighed and slipped down Seth and took her other brother’s hand. True to her word, she started to cry, but quietly.

Seth looked at his mother. If she was on the verge of tears, he couldn’t tell. She looked like she did before any field trip to Earth with the kids: thoughtful, a bit harried, a little resigned, with a light dancing in the back of her eyes.

“Got everything? Money? ID? Latchkey?”

“Yes, dear,” she said. “It’s still right here.” She patted the purse slung over her body.

“Good,” said Seth. He winked, kissed her on the cheek, and slipped a luminator into her hand. “Just in case.”

“There you are, Val,” said Jake, showing up with a travel case. He put it down to embrace Valeria. “I hope this turns out to be an over-reaction on our part. Kiley doesn’t think it’s necessary yet but–” He looked around at all the other families saying goodbye. “Well… we’ll know soon.”

“One way or another,” Valeria agreed. “Don’t let Kiley talk you into anything stupid while I’m gone, all right?”

Jake laughed awkwardly. “I’ll do my best.”

Valeria turned back to Seth. “I’m proud of you, kiddo. When you find Natalie, give her my love and tell her I’m proud of her, too.”

Kaylee’s weeping became sobbing, and Logan looked like he was fighting back tears too. Seth rumpled his hair. “Extended goodbyes are no good, Mom. Get out of here.”

She nodded, picked up the case in one hand and took Kaylee’s free hand with her other. Then, without a backward glance, she stepped through the portal to London.

Behind Seth and Jake, the Tanist said, “I was looking for you, Jake.” Her voice was flat and angry. She was often angry at Jake when Valeria was around, Seth had noticed. It was like she was jealous or something.

Jake visibly startled, whirling around to face his boss. He shoved a hand through his hair. “Kiley. Hey. How’s it going?”

“Not as bad as some people seem to think,” she said, and paused meaningfully. “The Readers are investigating and they think there are options for remaining at this Tower even if Kentigern himself is damaged. They’re working on a report.”

Seth said, “Meanwhile, what’s the plan for when that fails?” The Tanist gave him a cold look, and he smiled insolently at her. “A lot of people have been hurt already. I went ahead and made sure my mom and siblings got out, did you see?”

“Seth…” said Jake, tiredly.

“Everything is fine,” snapped the Tanist. “And you, boy, if you go around telling people it isn’t fine, any injuries resulting from the ensuing panic are on your head.”

Seth tossed his hair out of his eyes. “Oh, I never take responsibility for anything. You’ll want Natalie for that.”

Jake said slowly, “I do think we need to consider what happens if we can’t stay here,” and Seth looked at his father in mild surprise. It was unlike Jake to argue seriously with the Tanist about anything. He usually just accepted everything she dished out, her obedient yes-man. It was an interesting departure from the usual, and Seth considered how to exploit this.

“You think I haven’t?” the Tanist said. “But we are not giving up on this place. We’ve been here over a thousand years and the Guardians are not just giving up, not on my watch.”

Seth couldn’t resist. “And afterwards?”

The Tanist gritted her teeth. “Jake, why is your son such a coward?”

Jake shifted uneasily. “Hey now, you two.”

Delighted, Seth said, “I knew there was a reason I was uninjured! Cowardice! Yes! If I’d been brave like Linc— wait, I meant stupid–

Her hand lashed out and Seth couldn’t dodge, not when he knew letting her connect would be so much more entertaining. He may even have leaned into the blow as she hit him in the face with her half-open palm. Her fingernails caught in his skin, drawing blood.

Jake moved as if galvanized, grabbing the Tanist’s arm. “My god, Kiley!”

Seth grinned so widely that the scratch burned as it stretched. She looked at her nails, then at Seth’s face.“Something to remind you of your courage, then.”

Jake shook the Tanist. “He’s just a kid, Kiley.” But the Tanist put her hand on his chest and pushed him away so hard he stumbled.

“A kid badly in need of discipline that neither you nor your wife seem able to provide. So it falls to me.” She looked at Seth one more time. “If I see you again this nightfall, kid, I’m going to throw you out a portal without a latchkey.” She turned on her heel and stalked away, vanishing into the crowds toward the other end of the Portalry.

The blood on Seth’s face trickled into his mouth. He licked it, staring after the Tanist, no more able to stop smiling than he was able to stop bleeding.

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