Under the Empire Book One
- Read My Mind
Heat Level: 3
Romantic Content: 4
Ending: Click here to reveal
Character Identities: Bisexual, Gay
Protagonist 1 Age: 18-25
Protagonist 2 Age: 18-25
Tropes: Death of Parent, Interracial Relationship, Mind Games
Word Count: 76700
Languages Available: English
Series Type: Same Universe / Various Characters
Sometimes you just gotta pray. And I know our goddess will answer those prayers, ’cause she wants us all to live our best lives.
I smiled. My mom’s ConnectUs status reminded me of listening to her at the dinner table back home. I’d only been away for three weeks at this point, but gods, I missed her. And not just her advice and support—I missed her spaghetti, too.READ MORE
Tapping on my phone, I tabbed back to my profile page: Scott Kensington, with a profile pic featuring my younger sister and me smiling outside of high school. My most recent status read, “I made it through my first week at University of Frannesburg! Miss you all!” I was living the beginning of a coming-of-age movie by going away to college, but there was no way I’d have any life-changing epiphanies or meet the love of my life right off the bat. Not when even the social requirements of going to class made me exhausted.
I glanced back at my mom’s status. Maybe prayer would help with that.
Leaving my religious theory textbook open on my pillow, I climbed down from my loft bed. My desk and dresser hid underneath the loft bed on one side of the dorm, and my roommate Mark’s unlofted bed and desk sat on the other wall, with his dresser on the back wall under a window. There was too much furniture for the size of the room. We couldn’t have made it work if Mark hadn’t suggested lofting one of the beds.
I’d never had to share a room before. It was like those TV shows with feuding brothers, where they put a line of tape down the middle and each side was completely different. The walls on Mark’s side were covered in posters for bands and video games, and he had a dual-screen handheld game console and pile of games and strategy manuals on his dresser.
My side? Still sparse. All I had really managed to set up was my altar on my dresser . . . showed my priorities, I guessed. But my altar was full: a ten-inch statue of Natalis carved from a marbled rosy stone stood before a round mirror, which held small figurines of Sanya and Flavius in their creature forms, a fish and a phoenix respectively. Mom had given me Sanya before I left as a prayer to stay healthy. And Dad had given me Flavius as a prayer for ambition and opportunity. Though I displayed him for the luck.
I lit a tea light in front of the mirror with a flip-open lighter and rubbed my thumb across the floral insignia etched on its side. Ten petals for the ten gods.
Swiveling my desk chair around to face the altar, I sat down. The candle’s light danced on the central statue, throwing her curvy shadow onto the wall behind her.
“Hi, Natalis,” I whispered, running a finger down the side of the statue’s face and across her shoulder. “I’m lonely. I hope you don’t mind if I talk to you.”
She wouldn’t mind of course. But I hated feeling like a bother. Why would my little voice matter among the billions she heard from each day?
“University of Frannesburg isn’t that bad. The dining commons has decent food, and the classes are pretty much what I’d expected, all reading assignments and don’t forget office hours,” I started, like I was talking to my mother. But I didn’t have to talk to Natalis that way anymore, now that I wasn’t home, and Mom wasn’t right behind me.
With a sigh that drooped my shoulders, I tried again.
“I’m lonely. Ralston feels a whole world away, not just two hours. I knew Frannesburg would be different, but Mark doesn’t even have an altar, and the Flavius statue in the quad doesn’t have any offerings. What am I going to see next, an eccentric not knowing which god gifted them magic? I hadn’t expected religion to be so unimportant to people in this city, with so many eccentrics here.”
After growing up in a little town full of normals, magic still took me by surprise. I had seen dozens of telekins around campus, and the university had a healing program. Yesterday I had even passed a fire weaver with actual fire in her palm, my first time seeing fire weaving in person—
But that wasn’t what I wanted to talk to the goddess about.
“The problem is . . . I don’t feel any connection to anyone. And I’m fucking up every opportunity Mark gives me to be social.” You’re not supposed to swear to the gods. Shut up, Mom. “Why does it sound so awful when he asks me to hang out? Why can’t I relax around him and meet his friends?”
I realized I was squeezing the lighter in my palm, so I put it down and took a few breaths to un-fluster myself. I had to get all my thoughts out, and at the end would be clarity. That was the hope, anyway.
“It’s not like I’m scared of them. They’re kids, like me.” You’re not a kid anymore if you can drink, smoke, and be drafted. Deep breath. Un-fluster, for the gods’ sakes. “They’re in the same situation as me, trying to figure out college life. But nothing they want to do sounds worth it. I don’t want to go to some random burger place. I don’t want to lie in the sun on the quad. Not alone, anyway.” Lying with a boyfriend would be okay.
Like that would ever happen at the rate I was going, leaving the dorm only for class and food.
“I need help finding the courage to get out there,” I said, drumming my fingers along the edge of the dresser. “That’s it. I know courage isn’t really your thing. It’s more Flavius’s. But Mom always encouraged us to talk to whichever god we wanted, and Mom’s prayed to you my whole life. I trust you. You can give me the right level of help. Thank you. Together we love.”
I blew out the candle and smoke snaked over the altar, its reflection in the mirror crossing behind the gold phoenix of Flavius. Maybe she was calling on him to help me out. Or maybe it was a big ole coincidence of positioning.
Well, there, out of my system. I didn’t feel better, but it had been worth the try. Maybe tomorrow I’d have the guts to—
With a single rap at the door, Mark bounced in, his smile infectious and his golden-brown hair flattened from the drizzle outside. He threw his backpack onto his bed, collapsed into his desk chair and gave it a whirl.
“Hey, dude, you like ice cream?”
“Ice-cream social at eight tonight in the third-floor lounge. One of those meet and greet sorta deals. You in?”
I blinked. I was tired, but . . . “Sure.” Something this unforgivably social had to be Flavius’s doing. But, thanks, Natalis, that was actually really fast. I could hear Mom now.
See? You just had to pray. You just had to believe.
And she was right, of course. Faith, and trust. In Natalis, and myself.
* * * * * * *
Being away from home was awesome. I could stay up as late as I wanted and simply caffeinate before my classes the next morning. I could skip my homework, as long as I did enough work to pass. And Dad couldn’t barge into my room and bother me, couldn’t ask if I had a job, and finally finally finally would stop asking when I was going to go to college.
I’m here, old man. Look at me now.
Jason Rox’s newest single boomed out of the speakers of my laptop, and I tapped a spare pencil on my desk to the beat with pushes of telekinesis. The newest action figures had been released on Super Collectors, and I scrolled through the webpage with a wave of a finger, my magic barely working on my laptop’s track pad. I sat back; college was the fucking life.
And I wasn’t going to give that nagging thought—that I can’t do this forever—the time of day.
Samuel burst into the dorm without a glance toward me. He had been busy this afternoon, buzzing around collecting clothes to bring to the laundry. He had already headed to the communal wash machines twice today. How’d he go through that many clothes in less than a month, huh? He was a fun guy and all, but his desire for popularity had carried over from high school—he hadn’t spent a year off like I had, after all—and apparently popularity meant a different shirt every day and more pairs of jeans than I had seen in my life.
As he gathered a large pile of underwear and socks, I swept our door shut from across the room.
“You got the quarters for all that?” I asked, and he paused halfway back to the door.
“Yep. My dad gave me a whole roll at the beginning of the year.”
“Which will last you half of today?” I asked, smiling as he chuckled and continued on his way, distracted enough to—yes!—smack into the door.
He swore, gathering his lost delicates, and I couldn’t stop laughing.
“You’re a fuckin’ riot, Nick,” Samuel muttered, pulling the door back open. “Just as bad as my sister.”
“Just as rad, you mean,” I countered, as he slammed the door shut behind him. Refocusing on my laptop, I studied the newest posable Angel of Flavius. Man, they had done a great job sculpting wings covered in flames. The detail was so badass. I added it to my favorites list. Definitely considering that one.
There was a knock, and as my telekinesis was awful with door handles, I called, “Come in!”
The RA for our floor, Philip, pushed open the door enough to peek through. “Hey, Nick!”
“Yo,” I said, eyes back to the webpage. I tabbed over to the comics section, to see if there was anything new.
“Can I talk to you a minute?”
I tried not to huff at him and pulled the door fully open with a twiddle of my fingers. Philip strode in and sat on Samuel’s bed across from me. His short black hair was spiked up and his shirt sported a stylized Japanese script. I could appreciate an Asian guy who wasn’t reluctant to wear something that looked Asian, even the Empire-friendly version. I stuck with comic shirts so as to not encourage the sorts of questions he probably got, like “Hey, what does your shirt say?” Especially because for me, they’d be followed with, “You’re Asian, right?” Such was the biracial existence. My features were just Chinese enough to not always be ignored as white. It was easier to avoid those situations all together.
“Hey, man,” Philip started. “I’m making the rounds, want to make sure I catch everyone ’cause I have a few announcements. How’ve your first few weeks gone?”
There was silence, and I met Philip’s level stare and patient smile. It was enough like my dad’s to intimidate me into answering.
“Not awful. So much reading though,” I sighed.
“An intro literature class will do that to ya. And the math?”
“I don’t really get when I’ll ever use calculus, but Gen Ed is Gen Ed.”
“Well depending on what field you’re going into”—here we go again—“it may come in very useful. Have you given your major any thought?”
If the thought was I don’t know and I don’t care then yes, but that wouldn’t appease Philip. But at least it was Philip badgering me here, because my dad hadn’t realized that I was undeclared. I didn’t even remember what I had told him it was. “English is fine, yeah?”
Philip nodded. “It’s a great major for teaching. Do you think you might want to be a teacher?”
My widened eyes must have given my opinion on that away as Philip chuckled and stood.
“Keep thinking about it. You’ll want to make up your mind by the end of the first semester. Second semester undeclareds have a much harder time getting the classes they need.”
“Can I major in collectibles?” I asked, keeping my tone level. At least he cracked a smile, as he glanced above my head at the couple dozen artfully posed action figures on shelves. One of the first things I’d done when I had moved into this room was rig up those shelves. And then unpack all my comics. The top of my dresser was stacked with them, just the way I liked it.
“You could get into design, or fine art, or creative writing?” Philip offered, and I shook my head. “Well, if you ever want to talk about it, my door’s always open, okay?”
I gave him a solemn nod, and he shrugged slightly.
“Hey, so my announcements. Don’t forget about the ice-cream social going on tonight with all the guys on this floor.”
“That sounds fun.”
“Yeah, man! Maybe you’ll meet someone who’s majoring in something that strikes you. You know, like an Adela object.”
“Right,” I managed, with no idea what he was talking about. I resumed favoriting the newest issue of Emperor’s Army and tabbed back to the figures. Those religious phrases like “Adela object” were almost always lost on me. I didn’t know the stories, past their versions that showed up in comics. Praying or studying the gods wasn’t really my thing, since Dad wasn’t into it.
But . . . getting some free ice cream sounded pretty good. As Philip went to leave, Samuel came back in. Philip repeated his spiel on the social.
“Any girls gonna be there?” Samuel asked, and Philip laughed.
“It’s for this floor, for you to meet your peers. All guys, man.”
Free ice cream, and maybe finding a cute guy to flirt with? That actually sounded great.
And this Tulian soldier with two sets of snap-on armor? Fucking sweet.COLLAPSE