The House of Luma
by Daisy White
Former refugee, Talia has escaped the infamous Camps of Arista and married a Warlord from Leonore. As well as dealing with her turbulent past, and adjusting to married life at eighteen, Talia struggles to launch her dress-making business.
But soon her new family are torn apart by a series of seemingly unconnected violent attacks. Talia discovers a drug cartel operating in her adopted homeland are seeking to destroy not only the tenuous peace treaties, but also Talia herself.
But have the rebels of Arista really turned on one of their own, or is the danger closer to home?
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|Teens / New Adult|
I wake with a jerk, torn from my dreams so quickly you can almost hear them ripping apart as they plunge me through the sleepy threads, into the icy nightmare of reality.
My hands are clenched on the sheets, and I blink stupidly as I wait for the blindness to disappear. My eyes dilate like a night bird, casting around the room for reassurance. The high-backed chairs are still tucked neatly on either side of the round tea table, and the huge ornate carvings loom high in each corner, throwing out vicious, but familiar ragged shadows.
Silky pale curtains, so unearthly they could be trappings of the moon, are drawn halfway over the open window, which shows, in the crack, an oblong of peaceful night sky empty of intruders. Beside me, my husband sleeps on, one muscular naked shoulder visible above the white sheet. The inkwork on his skin is dark against the flesh, curling upwards towards his neck.
What woke me? The sound still seems to be floating across the air. A breath of evil, tainting the innocence of the cool desert night, and I feel myself straining to identify it. I’m still fuzzy headed, too lost in my dreams…
Studying the wide windowsill again, I try to relax, thinking of the guards down below silently patrolling the house. Refusing to be quietened, my stomach cramps painfully from a sickly rush of adrenalin, and my fingers tremble as I push back a tickling tendril of hair. My raw survival instinct, honed by years in the refugee Camps of Arista, hasn’t been dulled by a mere couple of months of city life.
I stare again at the window. It’s surely impossible that anyone should enter the building that way. Our gilded palace of a bedroom is eight floors up, and the walls are smooth marble. The door to our sleeping quarters is shut fast—a reassuring rectangle of black in the pale greyness of the wall.
Perhaps the sound that woke me was just the stale echo of last night’s arguments, and in my dream-drugged confusion, it has become reality. I glance down again at my sleeping husband. He stirs and mutters in his sleep. Black eyebrows momentarily draw into a frown. The silk sheets pulling away from his naked body, revealing more of the broad muscular shoulders and a lean, tanned torso. He turns onto his belly, sprawled across the bed, head forced to one side on the soft pillow. The delicate black inkwork covers his shoulder blades, and I trace it with my eyes—the bird of prey, the desert rose, and a mountain scene. His dark hair is a tousled mop, half shadowing the etched cheekbones, and full lips shown in perfect profile against the white pillow slip.
I almost put out a finger to trace the line of sun-kissed freckles that dust his spine, and I smile in spite of myself. The frenzied drumming of my heart finally settles back to normal, and, surveying him with pride, I wonder if the echoes thrumming around the room are from us making up after the argument...
It’s always that way with Kellar and me. Although it seems we spend most of our time infuriating each other in daily life, there’s always an inexplicable link between us, even in the middle of the worst argument. My greatest fear is always that he’ll walk away, leaving me on my own, but he says I push him away on purpose.
I hate him and love him, all in the same breath, and I suspect it’s the same for him. He’s my husband, but he’s also a warlord, and his worries are for me as well as his kingdom, which makes our arguments all the more fierce. I have opinions on the kingdom, and I’m never afraid to voice them.
Pushing back my long-plaited hair, I lie down again, one hand smoothing Kellar’s dark hair, sliding downwards, hugging him to me. My fingertips tingle at the cool strength knotted under soft skin.
The sound comes again, and I bolt upright, muscles tense, jaw gritted, and fingernails scraping the sheet. The sick, frenzied hammering of my heart echoes the thumping in my head. After straining my senses, I hear it—a soft, scuffing thud, but quickly muffled as though someone has bumped into the furniture in the room below.
“Kellar!” My voice is a harsh whisper as I lean close.
He’s awake instantly. Dark eyes brilliant, narrowed in the moonlight. “What is it?”
I’m shaking, and my body is tensed and ready to fight. “Someone downstairs. I heard them…twice now.” As I speak, I reach across for my nightshirt, at the same time pulling a knife from the battered leather purse on the bedside shelf.
“Stay down here.” Sitting up, Kellar indicates the shadows between the table and the bed. He moves quickly. A long arm pulls his gun from a drawer as he slides swiftly across the bed and heads for the door. He moves with that hunting cat grace that’s his trademark and which always reminds me of a tiger, stalking prey.
Wriggling to the floor, I fling on my nightshirt as quietly as possible, fumbling with the sleeves. The knife is smooth and cool in my hand. Its bone handle digs into my trembling palm. I’m no stranger to fighting…to death. Deep in the shadows, I curl myself like a snake, into striking position and slow my breathing. My eyes are sharp now in the wash of pale moonlight.
As I watch, our bedroom door swings stealthily open, revealing just a small gap of blackness. My husband is ready beside it, hidden by the movement as he presses flat against the wall. For a moment, I’m frozen, like a night creature caught in gun sight, and I stare disbelievingly from my shadowed hiding place as a hooded figure glides swiftly through. The intruder pauses, and I catch the gleam of his eyes reflecting the metallic glint of his gun as he raises his arm and points the weapon at the dishevelled sheets on the bed. The pillows and bedding are disarranged and could well be two bodies sprawled in the peace of sleep.
My hand clenches harder on the knife. Kellar leaps forward in one fluid movement, pouncing even as the shot rings out. Two more shots shatter the night, and my ears ring with pain as I move carefully, stealthily across the cold, hard floor, knife low, eyes straining. It happened so quickly, I’m disorientated, and my knife hand wavers as I reach the doorway. My heart thumps so violently it hurts, and my breath comes in gasps. Two figures near the open door. One lying in a spreading dark stain. The other, crouched at his head.
“Kellar!” That split second of frozen terror when I can’t tell which dark-haired figure is down on the floor.
The crouched figure looks up, breathing hard, with gun still in hand.
Moonlight now slices through the clouds and across Kellar’s still-naked body. “Are you all right? Stay there, Talia. He’s dead, but I need to know if there are more. Aletos? Where the hell were you?”
There’s a noise on the stairs, and as we raise our weapons again, our guards pile into the room, led by a yawning, barefooted Aletos. The smell of alcohol is strong, and the younger guards fumble with their clothing, straightening tunics, scuffing bare or hastily shod feet across the floor.
Aletos, their leader, is a tall, bearded man with heavy-lidded secretive eyes, a round face, and unexpectedly full lips, which could well belong to a voluptuous woman.
He glances quickly at me and then respectfully away, whilst the others stumble around the body, guns dangling uselessly. Kellar, seemingly unruffled, but gun still poised, explains, giving sharp orders before stepping between me and the body.
Aletos bends over to take a closer look, swearing under his breath as his bare feet slip in the oily slick of blood.
The moonlight washes the room with a cool, disdainful paleness, bathing us all in shades of ice and grey.
“He has the look of an Aristan.” Aletos flicks me another look, this one slightly less respectful. One of his large hands still rests lightly on his holstered gun.
I silently curse him for pointing out the obvious. The intruder’s hood has fallen away, revealing his dark hair, worn in the short, distinctive style of the Aristan people. My people.
Scowling at the guard, I move stiffly. My legs cramp as the adrenalin still rushes, unused, around my body. I step closer to the dead intruder. “A rebel could never have got in here—you know that, Kellar!”
Another voice calls now from the stairwell. “Ma’am? Talia, what’s happening? I heard gunshots…oh!” My secretary, Okley, shambles into the room, gathering his brown robe around him, slip-slapping in leather sandals before sliding to a horrified halt beside the pool of blood. “Who is that?” His slightly high, almost feminine voice is, as usual, at odds with his tall, broad-shouldered figure.
Half shrugging, Kellar moves away, leaning briefly over to the hanging clothes rail, hauling on his own tunic. “Have a look. Maybe you can shed some light on the identity of our intruder,” he says to Okley, who blinks, looking uncertainly at me as his shoulders hunch in confusion.
I rescue him, noting, as usual, that Kellar baits the older man without even thinking. There’s always an animosity between them, and I know Okley annoys Kellar with his fumbling and fussing.
While carefully explaining the presence of a dead body in my bedroom, I bend down, with shaking hands, to pull the dead man’s hood away completely. Even down on the floor, I can feel Kellar’s dark stare. His faint spasm of anger is always quickly checked when I defend Okley.
I drop the hood to one side and direct my attention to the blank, smooth face of a teenager younger than me, with that dark hair curling in a quiff. The bullet wound in his chest oozes blood over a simple, dark tunic, and Kellar now comes back to give the body a quick but thorough search.
“Anything, sir?” Aletos crouches at my other side, studying the tattoo winding down the dead man’s arm, and reaches down to trace it with a blunt forefinger.
It’s a snake and a flower, common enough and badly done so that the ink has blurred and the colours indistinct in the half-darkness of our bedroom. The feet are bare, and both knees are scarred.
Eventually, Kellar abandons his grisly task and walks to the washstand to cleanse his hands. The water gushes rusty red down the side of the marble basin, and I bite my lip in confusion as my husband shakes his head.
“No, nothing to identify him. No purse or jewellery. Clearly Aristan, though, as you say. Talia, do you have thoughts?”
I know what Kellar’s asking, but I shake my head. This boy is a stranger. I’m too busy dragging my twisted mind back from another body, another tattoo, and the blood that runs like poison between Arista and Leonore.
But logically, I know my mind is playing tricks. Millar is dead, so this isn’t my desert brother. The boy turning cold, next to my feet would’ve killed us both. Normally, our death threats are from the Aristan rebels, but this, an actual attack, could be from anyone.
The warlords on the Council have been growing restless since our marriage, and of course, even before that happy event, Kellar’s father, Josez, was murdered.
My husband prowls slowly around the room, pausing thoughtfully beside the bathroom door before continuing his circuit.
“Are you alright, ma’am?” Okley is now fussing with my papers on the table by the window and tweaking curtains in that slightly annoying, maternal fashion he has.
I still find it a bit weird that Kellar’s family, my family, has a male servant, but it’s a Leonore custom, so I’ve tried to like Okley. Actually, he makes my life very easy and is devoted to Kellar and his mother, Malise, despite Kellar’s disdain.
He trots over now, peering into my face, kindly and worried. “Shocking. This really is shocking that some lone assassin could get in and—”
“What makes you think he was working alone?” Kellar asks quietly, still in that deadly jungle cat mode. He moves away from the window, where he’s been peering down into the dark streets below.
“Well…I just assumed, sir…the house guards haven’t reported any other intruders…” Okley blusters, twisting his fingers, shooting covert looks at the windows in case any masked men are now scaling the walls.
My eyes meet my husband’s. “You think someone sent him to kill us?”
“Well, he’s a kid, isn’t he? Impressionable, maybe easily expendable if, as happened, the attempt failed. Also, being just some random kid, he’s unidentifiable. I really can’t see a teenager being able to plan the attack on his own. He could hardly have just walked in off the street.” He turns to Aletos, who’s watching us all, expressionless, and still in the shadow of the doorway. “Find out how he got in and send someone to check my mother. Quickly!”
Clearly relieved at having something to do, the other guards disperse as Aletos snaps out his own orders, and the thump of feet downstairs indicates the search has begun.
“Okley, could you check my workroom, please?” I don’t really want him to, and the bodyguards will be much more efficient, but Okley likes to be helpful, and I need to be alone with Kellar.
Despite outward appearances and their regular bouts of heavy drinking and wild partying, our house guards are loyal, and I’ve gotten used to their constant presence.
A shadow of fear crosses my secretary’s long, thin face, but he nods and bows quickly, then steps, with exaggerated care, around the body and respectfully closes the door behind him.
With the room now quiet, Kellar moves to my side and lays an arm around my shoulders, half-relaxing as we sink in a pool of moonlight, on the edge of the bed. The body is half-hidden by the shadows of the chairs, but his head is visible—a grotesque spread of further darkness accompanied by the stench of death.
As I’ve said, I’m familiar with death, but the sight of his childish dark hair and the sticky pool of redness stirs other memories. I tell myself it was such a very long time ago, and since then, I’ve made my peace with the past. But there’s still a sore place in my heart for all of them.
“Talia?” Kellar puts gentle fingers to my chin and turns my head towards his.
I lay a cheek on his shoulder, feeling the comforting warmth, the solidness, and his warm breath in my hair. “Who do you suppose sent him?”
My husband sighs. “We have such a long list of enemies, my love. I think it’ll be very difficult to find out. As he’s Aristan, then it looks as though the rebels are behind the attack, but they’ve never been so bold before. To attack us in our own home, in the heart of Leonore, is a major change to their usual game plan.”
He stretches. Arms above his head, brow furrowed, clearly thinking hard, as I am.
Kellar continues, “What bothers me more than motive is how he got into the house. There’s no way in. Even if Aletos or one of the others decided to share a bed with a street girl, the door would’ve been locked from the inside when she came in and after she left.”
“I thought he arrived up here a bit late. You still don’t mind that he’s sleeping with prostitutes when he should be on duty?” I lift my head and meet his eyes again.
This has been said before. Although women in war-ravaged Arista have no voice, they do have respect. In Leonore, they’re wives or prostitutes.
There are lines on Kellar’s face that weren’t there when we met, and his voice is heavy with responsibility. Warlord duties are taking their toll. He shrugs now and sweeps his hair back in that impatient gesture I love so much, brow wrinkling. “Of course I care, but my father was happy with the way things were, and Aletos and his men might be loyal and in our employ at the moment, but things could change easily. You know they could.”
I do know. In the six months since Kellar’s father was shot by an Aristan rebel, the warlords have been watching and waiting for the slightest sign of weakness. The Council was horrified when Kellar married a settler from the Camps of Arista, just days after his father’s murder.
My country, Arista, is named for the loda arista, little tigers who hunt in the mountains and across the Barren Lands. It’s been all but destroyed by the warlords of Leonore. Their greedy squabbling over the fields of illumas—the violet and white daisies that can be harvested to make a powerful, sedative drug—and our oil fields has led to thousands of families dying and their relatives displaced and herded into refugee camps run by the International Peacekeepers.
That was my life before I fell in love with Kellar. But now, in Leonore, as his wife, I have a little bit of power, and I’m going to use it. It was always my plan to escape from Arista. Kellar just made it a bit easier, and I really do love him. I’m just finding that being married takes a bit of getting used to.
The night is nearly over now, and white gold streaks of sunlight are painting lazy early morning stripes over the Blue Mountain peaks. I leave Kellar frowning on the edge of the bed and wander to the window, glancing, as usual, at rocky buttresses that guard the north side of Leonore—one of the illegal gateways to the city, for refugees and immigrants.
I really should give up looking, because he won’t be back. My father left to join the rebels soon after my mother was murdered, and whenever a rebel camp is uncovered, or some men are captured, my heart always gives a funny little jump, like it might be him.
“Talia, there’s something else I noticed on his body.” Kellar waves a hand at the doorway, and I glance over.
With death comes sadness, of course. But in our bedroom, our private sanctuary, violence is supposed to be kept away.
“He has needle marks in his arm. Some recent, but most scarred over.”
My fingers are cold on the marble sill, and I move over into the thin beam of sunlight, dragging my icy feet.
Luma is a new problem for both countries. The daisies of Arista, illumas, have long been used in medicine, in cooking, and even the roots can be used as fertiliser. As such, the plant rivals the value of the oil wells in some areas, which is one of the reasons why the Leonore warlords invaded my country in the beginning.
With an uneasy peace now settled between the two lands, exports of the riches, including newly discovered gas fields in the Barren Lands, which separate Leonore and Arista, are currently satisfying the warlords greed. But recently, there’s been an explosion of thefts from the daisy fields, and Kellar’s spies tell us there’s a new drug making its way around the black-market traders.
The drug comes as powder that’s smoked, or you add water, and it becomes an injectable liquid. It’s made from drying the daisy petals, then crushing them with distin, an industrial cleaner used in the Camps of Arista. Ironically, distin is shipped in vast quantities by the international charities and aid workers to help keep disease under control.
The new drug is called luma and has no medicinal uses. Rather, as one user put it, “It sells dreams and is a cure for boredom.” According to our informants, its claimed to give you bravery to the point of stupidity and happiness to the point of delirium. For the troubled teenagers of Arista and Leonore, I can see that it might provide an irresistible escape from reality.
The medical centre in Leonore tested a sample that was seized by Kellar’s military guards and told us that the combination of daisy and distin creates something addictive and lethal. They said it would induce psychosis in frequent users and eventually lead to death.
Remembering this, I frown. “But those people we’ve seen that’ve taken luma seemed crazy. They were shouting at shadows! This boy was so calm and serious. I saw it in his eyes the second just before he...” My voice trails away, and I shift further into the warmth of my sunbeam as it broadens to flood the room with reassuring gold.
Noises downstairs indicate the search is being completed and the rest of our household is waking.
Kellar is frowning. “Perhaps he uses it but didn’t last night? I don’t know. It might not even be connected to the attack, but I do believe if someone is addicted to luma, it’d be very easy to get them to do just about anything with a promise of more of it.” He reaches for a glass and downs the water in several gulps, then wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
The smell of blood is making me queasy, and for that reason, I don’t reach for my own water. Death has contaminated my room and everything in it.
Kellar continues. “Talia, I wonder if you should maybe cancel tomorrow. Don’t take this the wrong way, you know I support you, but I don’t want to lose you.” Kellar walks over, sliding gentle hands around my waist, leaning his chin onto my shoulder. “This is the most direct threat we’ve had, and I don’t think its coincidence that it should happen today. This is the start of a very important week. Do you really think it’s unconnected?”
I study the arc of the morning light dancing over the desert. It makes the whole of the Barren Lands look magical. I think hard about how important this week is to me personally but also to my reputation with the Council. As Kellar’s wife, they’ve reluctantly let me speak, but since I’m a successful businesswoman, they’ve actually started to listen to my ideas.
“If I do cancel and it’s connected to my business, whoever sent that boy to kill us will have won anyway. Do you think I should just stay in the house and hide?”
“If you don’t, you might be dead. Who knows what else is planned?” A note of impatience has crept into his voice. “Think about it, Talia.” He follows up with his most annoying phrase. “And Talia? Don’t be selfish on this. Think of Leonore, too. It won’t look good to have any unrest this week.” Kellar pulls a tunic and loose trousers from a drawer and straps sandals onto his bare feet. After a moment’s hesitation, he restores the gun to its hiding place.
Think of Leonore. I stay at the window.
He’s now fully dressed and heads for the door. Now I do feel selfish for putting my own business before the good of the country. Perhaps I should do what Kellar asks and postpone tomorrow. My mind spins, and I bite my lip so hard I taste blood.
Aletos is back now, stumping up the stairs, and I half-catch his mumbled reassurances about Kellar’s mother, Malise, and the security arrangements for today. Two other guards enter the room, half-bow to me, and start to wrap the body in cloth, for its departure from our house.
Did he wonder if he’d get out alive, or was he resigned to death? Does it take long to get to the Other Place, or do you just die and then awaken instantly? The thing is, I could’ve been dead so many times in Arista, and even over here, but you don’t stop fighting because it might happen, do you? I’m alive, yet my family and friends are all watching from the Other Place to see what I do with my life. I used to want revenge, but now I want peace. Both require bloodshed, but I’ve never been afraid of that, even when it looks like being on my own.
As I turn, my mind is still whirling and crazy with the events of the early morning, and I almost catch a glimpse of something, or is it someone, down in the street. Puzzled, I lean back across the ledge, catching my wrist on the sharp stone edge in my haste, fingers gripping the cool marble. My hair cascades in messy wisps, past my cheeks as I track the progress of an old woman cloaked in blue.
Her own plait falls to her waist, but despite the greyness of the hair, her stance isn’t of an elder, and for a split second, she glances upwards. Her old-young face is wreathed in tanned wrinkles, but her eyes, even at this distance, flash the clearest green.
I open my mouth to shout, heart pounding, but stop as Kellar impatiently calls me from the doorway.
“Talia? What’re you doing? I’m going to brief the other staff, and then we can discuss plans over breakfast. Talia!”
I swing around, hugging my nightshirt around my naked body. I’m cold despite the sunlight, and my mind is trying hard to process the sighting. The Guardian is here—in Leonore!
My husband has a grim expression as he nods curtly to the guards, who shuffle slowly down the stairs, with their grisly burden. The shroud rustles along the wall as the body starts its final journey, but the stench of death remains.
“Sorry, Kellar. Yes, okay.”
Why is she back? And what the hell is she doing in Leonore? There’s no doubt in my mind that my very own desert guardian has returned to haunt me, which means one of two things. First, I’m going mad—again. Or second, something really bad is going to happen.
My hand slips to my wrist, tracing the scars that stand out, white and ugly against the smoothness of my unharmed skin. No needle marks for me, but brutal cuts to remind me of the past.
From the doorway, Kellar’s voice loses that harsh edge, and instead becomes gentle. “Sweetheart, are you sure you’re okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost! Aletos says there was no forced entry. All the doors are secure, and the guards at the gate saw no one.”
The darkness in his eyes belies the good news, and my heart gives a little leap of fear.
“Which means someone let him in,” I conclude, biting my lip again.
“Yes, unfortunately. I see no other explanation. Someone in our house has turned traitor.”