Once more, Shane was in denial about actually having to get up. He gladly would have stayed in his room for much longer that morning, but the heat abruptly stopped working, and all of a sudden staying warm under the covers was no longer a possibility. With a faint sigh, he decided the only thing left to do was to put on his warmest clothes and leave his room, shivering in the cold hallway.
He found the other four Heirs huddled on the three-person couch in front of the fireplace, all looking a little disgruntled and cramped. Kaja had a blanket, but did not seem to be sharing.
“Did anyone call to find out what’s happening?” he asked.
“I did,” Kasumi said. “The front desk said they were working on it.”
“Got it. I’ll find a blanket or something.”
“There could be space on the couch still—” Leilan suggested.
“No,” Dawn, Kaja and Kasumi all blurted together.
Leilan winced. “Or maybe not.”
Shane rolled his eyes as he shivered. “If any of you want a blanket, I reserve the right to say no, because I’m taking them all.” He wasn’t going to, but he felt like saying it.
He moved back to the hallway, where there was a closet in the wall just before the first of the Heir’s rooms— Dawn’s room, he was fairly sure— that held spare blankets and pillows. There were other things in there, too, like an ironing board, but he was certain none of them knew how to use it. The elevator door dinged as he reached up to grab a blanket from the top of a stack, and he figured one of the others had slipped down to the lobby to complain. Maybe now there’d be space on the couch.
A shadow-like blur slipped past him on his left, and he let out a quiet but shrill sound of surprise, dropping the blanket and nearly losing his balance with his reach. He bumped into something behind him, and a pair of hands caught him by the shoulders. “Easy,” a voice said. “It’s just me.”
Shane turned to face Cyrin, who had backed up and raised his hands non-threateningly. His clothes were dark, like the shadow he’d imagined. He could feel his face heating up with embarrassment.
“Oh,” Shane said, laughing awkwardly. “Sorry for reacting like that. Do they call you the Specter because you’re sneaky?”
He’d meant it as a joke, but a faint frown spread over Cyrin’s face, and he looked slightly uncomfortable. “No.”
Shane winced. “Sorry. Pretend I didn’t ask.”
Cyrin bent down and picked up the blanket for him. “I just got back from a walk, and Mireya’s still out. Did the heat go out while I was gone?” they asked, passing it over.
Shane nodded. “It did. It got very cold right away, and the others claimed the fireplace, so.” He shivered again. “I’ll resort to bundling up.”
Cyrin seemed to examine him for a few seconds in silence, their gaze flitting over his face. It made Shane anxious that he didn’t know what they were seeing in him, but after a moment, they stepped back.
“I might have something for that,” they said, turning around and waving him along. “Follow me.”
Mystified, Shane let them lead him down the hallway, into the teal room for the House of Justice. He hadn’t seen much of the other Heir rooms besides his own, especially for the hotels outside of Crystal City, and he’d almost never entered this one. The teal walls were almost too vibrant in his vision, and not for the first time, he couldn’t help but wonder if anyone had ever considered that the designs for the Houses didn’t need to be this flashy.
Cyrin flicked the latches on his suitcase open, metal clicking against leather. He reached in and held up a pair of bronze wristbands, placing them in Shane’s hands. “You can put them on,” he said.
Shane slowly slipped them on his wrists, holding up his arms in front of him. Once the bands were in place, he felt the metal growing warm against his skin. The warmth spread like a current up his arms until the circuit closed between his shoulder blades. It felt like he was soaking in summer sunlight.
“Oh,” he breathed, the chill of the air immediately too insignificant to notice.
Cyrin nodded. “They’re made with Flare. It provides more body heat.”
Shane looked at the bands in awe. “It feels like a hug,” he said after a few moments.
A sad smile crept across Cyrin’s face, almost reluctant to show itself. “That’s actually their purpose,” he said. “They were sort of a moving out gift from my sister. They can also just keep you warm, though I don’t really use them for that. I think they’d lose their effect if I did.”
“That’s…” Shane lowered his arms slowly. “That’s really nice of her. What’s your sister’s name?”
Cyrin paused, pressing his lips together in a thoughtful frown.
“I remember what you said about your policy with questions,” Shane said quickly. “So you don’t have to answer.”
“I would, but come to think of it, I’m not sure I can tell you without giving myself away.” Cyrin chuckled softly.
“Like… your identity?” Shane asked. “I’m sure I wouldn’t know just from that.”
“You might be surprised, actually.”
Shane raised an eyebrow. “Well, you don’t have to share, but I couldn’t tell anyone who you are, besides the other four. If I exposed you for participating in theft for us, there’d be a lot more problems for us than you, especially if you responded by exposing me as an Heir. It’s about the safest position to share that you could be in.”
Cyrin appeared to give it some thought. “I might ask you a question or two about yourself afterwards, to make it fair.”
Cyrin stood a little straighter, like they were preparing to be examined. “My sister’s name is Allison.”
Allison. It didn’t make sense to Shane until it suddenly did, in the space of only a few moments. He knew a famous Allison, an opera and movie star who had earned her fame even outside of her famously wealthy family being in the public spotlight as celebrities. She and her siblings all had raven-black hair and sat in their front cover portraits like royals, but there was one of them that had stopped making the tabloids. A forgotten sibling with a name that started with a C.
“Allison,” Shane said slowly. “Allison Bridger.”
Cyrin nodded, a little tensely.
“You’re Cyrin Bridger.” Shane shook his head in amazement. “I’ve forgotten about you, but I was also talking about you. Right in front of you.”
Cyrin made a slight face. “I wasn’t quite worried you were on to me, but it was a bit awkward. Don’t worry about it.”
“How?” Shane asked in wonder. “How did you end up selling yourself out as a thief in Crystal City? You were from one of the richest families in Aphirah, attending the best university in the nation. Why did you leave that behind?”
A dry smile spread over Cyrin’s face. “Well, it helped that I didn’t really have the choice.”
They were watching him, waiting for him to speak instead of saying more, and he realized that he knew the answer.
“You didn’t leave,” Shane said, thinking out loud. Cyrin had stopped showing up in magazines and news articles, but he’d also disappeared from the interviews and statements of the other Bridgers. He’d faded into the background entirely. “You didn’t retire from the public eye. You were kicked out.”
“There were… rumors going around that you were acting out, a few years ago,” Shane said slowly. “Not public rumors, but my father heard them, because he was in touch with your stepmom. I think he also knew your mother before she… before. I didn’t know what to make of them, but I didn’t pay much attention to them either.”
“Really?” Cyrin asked, sounding surprised. “I always wondered what the news circulating around looked like.”
“Was it something else?”
Cyrin’s gaze flicked away from his for the briefest moment. “I might answer that some other time, but it’s not for now.”
“That’s fine,” Shane said. His heart was already racing from all that he’d just learned. “I guess you get to ask me a thing or two now.”
Cyrin paused. “What Houses are you all from?”
“Kaja is from the House of Strength,” Shane said. “Leilan is from Compassion, Dawn is from Loyalty, and Kasumi is from Honor.”
“So you’re from the House of Courage?”
“That’s right,” Shane said. “The Hawking family.”
A strange, heavy look passed over Cyrin’s face. “Your House had the assassination a few years ago,” they said, cautiously, as if they were worried he would snap at them for speaking it. “Gwen and Ray Hawking.”
“Yeah,” Shane said, swallowing. He hardly knew what else to say. “They were my parents.”
He’d seen so much sympathy, of course. The news had wailed their grief for weeks afterwards, and then at every anniversary of the event. He’d hardly done any work for his first half-year as a Heir because everyone felt too bad to ask anything of him. Flint had been distant, closed-off, but at least Shane had known that whatever he was feeling, his uncle was feeling too and probably understood it better. His pain was public, and he’d rarely had to see someone completely unprepared for it.
“Of course,” Cyrin said quietly. A look almost like horror had gradually crept across his face. “You’re Shane Hawking. I’d heard about you, but I never knew that you became an Heir.” He took a deep breath. “I really am so sorry.”
“You don’t need to apologize.” Shane shook his head. “I hear it a fair amount. It’s a strange way to respond to grief that I don’t blame anyone for using, but it doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“Right,” Cyrin said in a hushed voice, barely nodding. He was standing very still, and Shane wasn’t sure if he’d blinked. “I get it. It doesn’t sound like much.”
Shane offered him a weak smile. “It’s okay. It’s been a while, and…” He waved a hand loosely in the air between them. “You know. Life’s supposed to go on and all that.”
Cyrin nodded, his gaze sweeping over him for a moment before he stepped back, with something in his eyes that he couldn’t read. “You can keep those as long as you need them until we separate,” he said finally, gesturing to the wristbands. “I think you could use them right now.”
Shane rubbed the metal with his thumb, feeling the warmth of the bronze. “Thank you,” he said, meaning it. “Aren’t you… angry towards us, though? Or distrustful, at the very least?”
They gave it some thought, folding their hands behind their back. “I’m angry and distrustful towards the Houses,” they said. “I’m still making my mind up about the five of you. I’d like to separate you from them in my mind, but I’m not sure that I fully can. There’s…” They paused. “There’s a lot of overlap, even for those of you who I think are trying to break loose from them. It might still be too much for me.”
“And Mireya?” Shane asked.
Cyrin tilted their head to the side. “Well, you might have guessed she’s an anarchist. She’s… a little more committed to the hard feelings than I am.”
“Yeah, I did guess,” Shane murmured, then spoke up again. “And you? Where did your opposition to the Houses come from? Your privilege was protected by them, and that’s not an easy thing to give up or leave behind.”
Cyrin’s expression shifted again, and they suddenly looked so much more familiar. It was the regal, mysterious look for the front covers, displaying the person and their power without giving the viewer a glimpse of their thoughts. Shane couldn’t help but think he would have recognized them so much sooner if he’d seen them like this. A moment later, their face returned to what he knew them by— the smooth, carefree, capable thief. Not the aristocrat who had just been standing in front of him.
“You saw them, didn’t you?” Cyrin asked.
Shane knew what they meant and nodded.
“It’s an uncomfortable mask to wear,” Cyrin said. “And the role isn’t something where one size fits all. I’ve been sheltered from a lot of injustices that Ren people have faced because of my wealth protecting me, but there are also some I’ve faced that an Aphiran with my status would never have to deal with. So, there were times where I couldn’t act the part, and I could see past it. I don’t pretend to have shed that privilege entirely, but I learned to recognize where I was unfairly given advantages because of my class and disadvantages because of my culture. Both made me angry. Both made me want to do something about it.”
Shane slowly nodded. “I see what you mean. Leilan and I tell ourselves that if we ever get in power, we’d start pushing for that kind of change, though the others aren’t entirely in agreement.” That probably wasn’t the fairest to Dawn, who likely would agree and take their side, but she was both new to being an Heir and unenthusiastic about it. Shane couldn’t blame her for that much. As much as he resented the way he’d gotten the position, the Champion’s Appeal might have been an even worse way.
“Why not start now?” Cyrin asked.
Shane smiled thinly. “Believe it or not, we don’t actually have as much power as it seems like we do. We’re waiting our turn.”
“You might have more than you think,” Cyrin said, raising an eyebrow. Before Shane could decide how to respond, they stepped away, offering him a small nod. “I’m off to get some more magic, since I trust it when it’s from here. Mind picking up the expenses?”
“I’m sure we can,” Shane said. “When’s Mireya getting back?”
“Not quite sure,” Cyrin said, leaving the room. “We’ll talk as a group when she’s back, but it might be a while. She tends to lose track of time passing.”