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I burst into Dylan’s room, shaking all over and calling his name, only vaguely remembering how I got up here. He’s still on the phone with Teresa, lounging in one of the chairs in the far corner, all bare-chested and wearing those jersey pajama pants of his. But at the sound of the door crashing open, he’s up on his feet and spinning around toward me.
As soon as he registers the fear on my face, he gets off the phone: “Teresa, I’ll call you back. Everything’s fine. Yes, you too.”
He’s already moving across the floor, reaches me just as he’s hanging up.
“What’s wrong?” he says, gripping me by the arms real firm and bracing.
It’s so bright in here. Such a startling white after the dark of the nightmare, the dark of the halls as I ran to his room.
“A sighting,” I sort of stammer. “I— He—”
I don’t even know where to start. The whole horrible thing is still real present in my mind and I can’t seem to stop shaking. It’s like I’ve gone all weak and flimsy or something. Like any second I might just fall down on the floor and cry.
Dylan’s hands move up to my shoulders and he bends toward me, looking me right in they eye until he knows he’s locked me back into reality.
“Come here,” he tells me, and leads me back over to the chair where I was sitting just an hour before.
He sits on the coffee table in front of me, leans his elbows on his legs and looks me real sober in the face, waiting for me to calm down. From the total patience in his own expression, you’d think he had all the time in the world, and when I finally start to stumble through my story he doesn’t interrupt me. Just listens all silent and still.
It’s kind of weird how describing it out loud helps the panic to die down a bit. Sure doesn’t get rid of the fear, though. I mean, just minutes ago I felt myself dying—felt someone killing me—and there was nothing I could do to stop it. It may have just been a sighting, but it felt pretty potent and real to me, and I don’t know if the shock of that will go away anytime soon.
“Do sightings always come true?” I ask when I reach the end of my story, and Dylan hesitates before answering.
“Yes,” he says. “Though not always in the way you expect. Agni would explain it better, but while some sightings are merely hints or abstract interpretations of events, I believe a sighting as clear as yours is usually accurate. Did you recognize the voice of the man?”
“Do you know who the friend was? The one in pain nearby you?”
I’m not sure how to answer that. For a second I just study the straight line of Dylan’s nose, count each perfect little eyelash arcing off of his eyelids.
“No.” I say finally, instead of telling him that I’m terrified the kid I heard was actually him. That someday, I’m afraid, he’s probably going to die because of me.
He’s quiet for a few minutes too, biting his lip a little and thinking. The way he’s sitting, with his elbows resting on his knees and his fingers linked kind of loose and easy—he seems as calm as ever and I wonder if it’s bothered him more than he’s showing, the fact that I’ve just described what is probably going to be my own death.
“There’s no conclusion,” he says all of a sudden.
Meeting my eye, his expression edging somewhere near to relief, he explains, “Your sighting didn’t have a conclusion. We don’t know what happens to you or the other person you heard. You can still determine the ending. You just have to work hard to be ready for it. Perhaps it’s a blessing even, seeing it now, so you have something specific to train toward.”
I try to picture it as a blessing, but all I can think about is the feel of that man’s hand around my neck, of him reaching his mind inside me.
“When Agni comes back,” Dylan says, “he can help you put it all into perspective. That should be soon, but there’s not much else we can do until then, except what we’ve been doing. Do you want me to come sit with you for a while?”
I shake my head, trying to be brave even though I’d actually love not to be alone right now.
“Do you want to sleep up here with me?”
My heart kind of skips a beat. I mean, I know what he’s actually asking, but suddenly I’m real aware of his half-naked body right there in front of me, and of me in my lacy little camisole and pajama shorts. And the fact that we’re sitting so close to each other that I can see the speckles in the color of his eyes.
I’m also real aware that it’d be a disaster if I did any of things I’m suddenly thinking about doing to him, and it seems like it’s probably not a great idea for me to be one-on-one with him much longer.
“I’ll be alright,” I lie. “I was just kind of shocked.”
“May I walk you to your room at least?”
Picturing the dark and winding halls out there I give a little nod, thinking that it’s funny how in the middle of a totally fearful moment, I can still get so distracted by the appeal of a cute guy’s naked chest.
The next day is the Mawihl Academy Welcome Ball, which is, apparently, a much bigger deal than I’d realized. Family and friends of the new students come from all over the city to add to the welcome, and everyone takes their dress and appearance real serious. Aunt Nia even hires hair and makeup artisans to come and fix her and Eilian and me up. Three artisans for each of us, which feels like a small army invading the house.
The traditional style of clothing for these events is always something historically inspired. My dress, which Eilian picked out for me, looks like something from the late 1800s, with this tight bodice and a flowing skirt. It’s all shimmering green and as soft as downy feathers, embroidered with blues and yellows in a delicate sort of raindrop pattern running from one shoulder and down into the gauzy folds of the skirt.
To match the style of my dress, the artisans add length to my hair and curl it and pull it up on top of my head. They also alter the pigment of my cheeks, my eyelashes, my nails—just enough to “enhance my natural beauty,” as they put it. When I ask how they’re able to make the changes to my skin like that, they tell me none of it’s permanent.
“Think of it like a particle dye,” says the one in charge, an older woman with shiningly silver hair falling in real ordered waves down the length of her back. “It will all fade away by morning.”
“Like Cinderella,” another one says with a strong German accent, kind of laughing at her own joke.
This girl is curvy and big-eyed, and she’s got such a jovial laugh that it shakes pretty much her entire body. Probably I’d really like her if it weren’t for the fact that she smells almost exactly like that man from my sighting. All chemical-like grass and cucumbers. Or maybe celery?
Every time the girl comes near me—pulling strands of hair up onto my head, pushing her fingers across my cheeks real slow as she changes the pigment—I get all washed over in that smell of hers, and I feel the panic again. Feel sure that I’m dying. That Dylan’s dying beside me.
I want to ask her what the smell is exactly, but I’m not sure it’d be safe. I mean, I don’t know this girl. There doesn’t seem to be anything too sinister about her, but it’s real weird that she’s here today, barely twelve hours after I had a sighting where that smell of hers featured pretty strong.
I tell myself I can just ask Dylan about it later. Have him look into her a little bit. But my mind keeps trying to work the puzzle out on it’s own. Trying to figure out if there’s anything about her that’s suspicious. I keep finding my eyes following her, searching in the profile of her face for any sign of what that smell of hers really means.
When the artisans finish their work and stand me up in front of the mirror, I barely recognize myself. I look somehow taller, more sophisticated. My blue hair’s piled on top of my head with little wispy curls dangling down onto my shoulders, and my whole head’s dusted over with these blue and yellow crystalline things, barely bigger than the point of a needle. Combined with the shimmer in the fabric of my dress, I look like some sort of Marie Antoinette who’s been hand-dipped in a vat of stars or something.
The artisans are clearly waiting for some reaction. They’re lined up behind me, their faces visible in the mirror, and it’s so obvious they want to know what I’m thinking. They’ve done good work—I look amazing—but the only thing I can think as I stare at myself in the mirror is what a waste of time this all is. I should be training right now. I should be learning how to save lives. Dylan’s life, in particular. Mine too, if I can.
It’s Eilian that salvages the moment, bursting into my room without knocking and then stopping on the spot and staring me up and down and all over, like she’s in some sort of shock.
“I knew it!” she says, all accusing. “I knew you’d look stunning in that dress. Calon tân, you’re gorgeous.”
It’s all the artisans needed to hear. They smile at each other with this open pride, compliment Eilian on her own appearance, which is just as incredible as mine. If I’m wearing the stars, she’s draped in sunset. All clinging, coral-tinged silk underneath an ethereal looking sheer fabric in a light, yellowy sort of orange.
She thanks the artisans for their work, then she grabs my hands and spins me out the door in front of her, telling me she can’t wait to hear what everyone else says when they see me.
As she pulls me down the hall—talking the whole time about the people she hopes we’ll see at the ball, the dresses other girls might be wearing—I feel kind of restrained and disoriented. It’s strange to be swallowed up in her excitement and feel so removed from it all myself.
Aunt Nia and Unlce Wyn and Dylan are waiting at the foot of the marble stairs for us, and seeing Dylan there dressed in a dark, double-breasted tuxedo that’s straight out of the 1920s, I manage to regain some sense of steadiness. He watches me as Eilian and I come down the stairs, and there’s just something so reassuring about his presence there.
As we get near the bottom, Eilian says to the three of them, “Isn’t Sophie just drop dead?” and Uncle Wyn and Aunt Nia real readily agree.
“You’re both like beautiful visions,” Aunt Nia says with even more than her usual level of warmth. “Just look at the two of you.”
For a second, with her smiling at us like that, it’s almost like being an actual part of their family, and I feel this unexpected little thrill of pride shoot through me.
Dylan, all mock-serious and gentlemanly, takes my hand as I go down the last step and flashes me this conspiratorial little smile, saying in a near whisper, “You won’t be taken for a farm girl tonight.”
Before I can stop myself I’m kind of blushing, and I feel the first seeds of excitement begin to push out the fear from last night’s nightmare.
I look up at Dylan, unable to hide the gratified smile that’s pulling at my cheeks.
“Isn’t that a bad thing?” I ask, and he shakes his head, his eyes passing over me again as if he’s not aware he’s even doing it.
“Tonight it isn’t.”
The ball’s held in one of the skyscrapers downtown, in this huge octagonal room surrounded entirely by windows. The space is filled with thousands of white, delicate glass lanterns that are just hanging in the air there above our heads. They’re floating outside the windows too, making it seem like the room goes on forever.
You can feel the music of the live orchestra in the sound waves as they travel toward us through the particles in the room. The musicians are playing a variety of instruments, some of which I recognize, like the violins and the cellos. The rest, Dylan tells me, are Painter specific and they make sound by being manipulated on a particle level.
The combination of the Particle-Blind and Painter instruments makes the orchestra’s music almost unearthly, both beautiful and kind of strange. And the dancing is a perfect match for it, like something out of a dream.
Eilian and Aunt Nia took a little time this week to teach me some of the steps—mostly old-style waltzes and things—and they described the ascensè technique, where Painters add shallow pillows of air beneath their feet as they move from one step to the other, to lengthen their stride and give the illusion that they’re floating across the floor. Having it described to me and seeing it in person, though—well, those are two real different things.
With everyone dressed in their fantastical clothing from all periods of history, gliding around each other in these elegant, seamless twists and turns—all of it backdropped by the already magical setting—it pretty much takes my breath away. Standing with Dylan at the edge of the dance floor, all I can do is stare.
“Do you like it?” he asks, and there’s laughter in his voice as well as that same sort of pride that he had the first night I saw Daxa spreading out through the valley below us.
“It reminds me of the story of the twelve dancing princesses,” I say, and he cocks an eyebrow at me.
“I don’t believe I’ve heard that one.”
A couple dancers pass by, the man wearing an Indian-style turban and some sort of military uniform, and the woman dressed in African-looking patterns and bright colors. Both of them are real tall and handsome and dignified. The kind of people you notice in a crowd. And the way they dance, it’s like they were born for it.
I glance up at Dylan, giving him this teasing little smile. “Well, it’s a story that reminds me of this.”
“Fair enough,” he laughs. “Want to try it?”
“Yes—no. I don’t know,” I falter, imagining myself stumbling around real awkward among all those highly coordinated people, but Dylan’s already grabbing my hand and leading me onto the dance floor anyway.
“Oh, I’ll do most of it for you. Come on.”
We swing into motion with everyone else, and with him guiding me along it turns out I can perform most of the steps with an un-embarrassing level of credibility. Then, once he’s sure I’ve got the hang of the movements, he starts doing ascensè, and suddenly we’re dancing on air.
“We’re flying!” I laugh up at him, kind of afraid to look anywhere else in case I totally ruin this moment by losing my balance and falling on my face.
With his arm around me all warm and solid, our bodies close together, and his attention focused entirely on me—if there’s going to be one truly happy moment the whole evening, I’m thinking this is probably it.
When I start to feel comfortable enough to look around us, I notice that same couple from before, dancing just a few feet away. It’s not just the way they dance that draws my eye to them. They’re both so totally lost in each other, as if none of the rest of us exists. It comes as kind of a shock to me when I realize that I actually know the man.
His face is shaved, the turban covers his bald head, and he looks like some movie star instead of Father Christmas, but I’d recognize those smiling eyes of his anywhere.
I let out this little gasp and Dylan, like he was just waiting for my reaction, swings me real swift away from them, nearly to the center of the floor.
“Don’t show your recognition,” he says all quiet and firm, but kind of smiling.
I bring my eyes back to his face and try hard not to look as surprised as I am.
“Did you know he was back?”
Dylan shakes his head. “He must’ve returned this evening. No, don’t look at him again.”
Kind of laughing at myself, I apologize and whisper, “But he looks so different tonight. I barely recognized him.”
“Other than the ball attire, this is how he normally looks in Daxa.”
“Who’s that woman with him? She’s gorgeous.”
“That’s Ona. His wife.”
Obviously. I remember now that Agni talked about her, but I didn’t expect her to be so stunning.
“She’s like a tree,” I say, and Dylan nearly bursts out laughing even though I’m pretty sure he understands what I mean.
When the music stops Dylan doesn’t let go of my hand as we walk back across the room. It’s like it’s just natural for him to hold onto it, and it gives me this tiny little sense of giddiness to think so.
Then we see Teresa waiting for us there at the edge of the floor and all my giddiness ends. Dylan lets go of me to wave at her, picks up his pace a bit like it’s simple instinct for him to close the distance between them as fast as possible.
Teresa’s leaning all languid against one of the room’s stone pillars, looking like some model from the 1920s with her newly bobbed hair and a midnight-colored flapper dress that is clearly meant to complement Dylan’s suit. Elian’s next to her, chatting away at her while picking at a plate piled high with cookies and custards and things. It’s obvious Teresa’s only half listening to Eilian, though. Mostly, she’s watching Dylan and me, with that look in her eyes that always makes me feel uncomfortable.
As we get closer, she pushes herself up from the pillar, her body unfolding as graceful as if she were in some sort of ballet. Then, for just a second she looks straight at me like she wants to be sure I’m watching, and she takes a couple steps to come right into Dylan’s space, sliding her hand up and around the back of his neck to his essensus and pulling him into a kiss that is way more intimate than the occasion calls for.
I feel suddenly real weird, standing there right next to them while they’re doing such a private thing. When I meet Eilian’s eye, though, she seems to think it’s pretty funny.
“Get a room,” she says when Teresa and Dylan pull away from each other. “There are children here. You could burn their eyes out.”
Laughing all engagingly, Teresa twines her fingers into Dylan’s grip and leans her shoulder against his, smiling up at him. He smiles back, but I notice a tinge of a question in that look he gives her, like maybe he’s not exactly sure what’s just happened between them either.
Our other friends start to arrive then. Leti and Gabriel each come alone, staying by us most of the evening. Tua, on the other hand, shows up with what must be every person on the planet who is related to him in anyway, and he brings them all over to introduce them to us.
Nando—here with just his two younger sisters and his dad—introduces us to his family as well. His sisters are like little female, much more lighthearted copies of himself, and it’s pretty obvious he adores them. But I notice that, as he watches them run off to talk to some of their friends, the proud look on his face is tinged with a level of care and responsibility that seems a lot heavier than you’d expect in most brothers.
I get something of an idea of why that might be when he tries to introduce his dad. The man—all disheveled hair and an easy, vague sort of smile—seems harmless enough, but it’s also real obvious that he’s not exactly present. Like, his eyes are strangely unfocused and he can’t seem to stay even remotely still. Before Nando’s even finished telling us his dad’s name, the man’s moving around the perimeter of our little circle of family and friends, staring off into the distance and not really talking to anyone. I notice Nando’s eyes following him kind of anxiously, until Mr. Peréz comes back over and tells Nando in this slurred sort of a whisper that he’ll be back “pronto.”
“You have a nice time with your friends,” he pats Nando’s arm several times too many.
When he wanders kind of aimless away, it’s like Nando’s relief is actually palpable. His shoulders relax and he definitely seems to breathe a bit better. Though he still looks to me like it wouldn’t take much to push him out of his calm.
So, of course, this is when Tua decides to start interrogating him about why Hina’s not here.
“I thought she told you she was going to come tonight,” Tua says, when Nando just kind of shrugs.
“She ended up having to work last minute.”
“But your office is closed today.”
Nando stares at Tua for a little bit. Long enough that Tua should see the warning in it. “Yeah.”
Tua doesn’t get it though.
“So…what, she’s working a second one? I thought you’re not supposed to work off-campus jobs if you’re getting that half-tuition employee discount.”
At first Tua doesn’t seem to catch the change in Nando’s expression—this deadpan look that’s just seething with anger potential—but I’m pretty sure the rest of us do. I notice Leti and Eilian exchange quick glances, and even Gabriel looks at me and kind of raises his eyebrows.
“Unlike most of the rest of us,” Nando’s voice comes out like a snap. “Hina hasn’t got anyone here to give her support or to put a roof over her head. When you’re in a situation like that, you find work where you can and maybe, yeah, you have to bend the rules a little.”
Tua’s shocked. Just totally unprepared for this sort of response from Nando. Real quick, he does some back pedaling.
“No, no! That’s fine. I mean, that’s not what I meant. Lagisakes, I just thought,” he suddenly looks real embarrassed, “I thought maybe she was trying to avoid us or something.”
That’s when it dawns on the rest of us, why it is that Hina’s absence is bothering Tua right now, and I’m guessing he immediately wishes he could take back what he just said. It has a sort of magical effect on Nando, though. His anger dies as quick as it flared in the first place, and Eilian starts punching Tua sort of playful in the arm.
“You wanted to see her dressed up all pretty,” she says in this sing-song voice as Tua tries to push her hands away.
“Can’t imagine why anyone would want to avoid you, Tua.” Nando adds.
“Come on, you guys,” Tua’s kind of laughing, still fending Eilian off. “Try being a bit mature for a minute.”
Just then, this crash sounds out from a dozen or so feet behind us, and we all spin around to see what it was. Nando’s dad is standing there, and the broken shards of what used to be one of the floating glass lanterns is scattered at his feet. He’s looking both kind of sheepish and kind of confused, his cheeks a ruddy red that could be from embarrassment, but I’m guessing are from something else entirely.
The color in Nando’s own face has washed almost completely away. He rushes over to his dad’s side as people around us all turn to try and see what’s happening. Nando’s jaw is so tight I’m surprised I can’t hear the sound of his teeth grinding. He whispers something at his dad, all intense and angry, but it doesn’t seem to faze the man at all.
“I think I did that,” I hear him say. “Did I do that? I’m pretty sure I’m the one that did that. I was just trying to turn it green.”
Then he looks at Nando, and his eyes suddenly go all warm and tender as if he’s only just noticed that his son’s the one standing there.
“Ay, mijo!” he says, going in for a hug that Nando only half manages to deflect. “I really love you, you know? You’re a good young man, so much like your mother.”
More people are craning their heads to catch a glimpse of the two of them, and Nando’s embarrassment is obviously in a pretty neck-and-neck competition with his anger now. He bends down to try and gather up the pieces of the lantern just as one of the venue’s steel faces swoops in to clean it up.
Once it’s clear the steel face is going to make quick work of it, Nando grabs his dad’s hand and pulls him kind of gruffly through the curious crowd. As the two of them disappear through the ballroom doors, I catch Tua and Eilian and Leti exchange another glance, and from the expression on their faces I’m guessing this sort of scene with Nando’s dad isn’t exactly uncommon. The way Nando talked about that Stranger’s Hollow place is starting to make a whole lot more sense.
About ten minutes later Nando shows up again, not seeming so much angry now as just kind of tired and sad. I hear him tell Tua that he sent his dad home in a taxi.
“I just hope he actually makes it this time,” he says, and I see that heavy look in his eyes again. The one like he’s staring into the face of overwhelming responsibility.
I feel something like that myself, seeing that pain of his and having zero idea how to make any of it better for him. He throws himself into the party, though, and pretty soon he’s doing a convincing job of seeming okay.
As the night wears on, our little circle of friends and family fluctuates a lot, with people coming and going. Some leaving to dance and some to talk to other friends. About two hours into the party, I’m coming back from a dance with Tua’s older brother Kaho when someone steps real purposeful right into my path.
I look up, and I’m kind of surprised to see that it’s not someone I know.
“You are Dylan Lucas’s little cousin Sophie, are you not?”
The woman is not exactly tall, but she sure gives off the impression of tallness. This feeling like to see her properly you’d have to sort of shade your eyes.
“Yeah. I’m Sophie Warren.” Using that name is getting to feel less and less like a lie.
“I am Nunurai Takafar,” the woman says, her words coming out all compact and to the point. “I am Dylan’s supervisor.”
“Oh!” I say, trying not to show on my face the sudden memory of Dylan telling me that the double agent at the GIB might be one of his bosses.
“He has told me a lot about you,” she says, and I can’t help thinking that everything about her is sharp. The tone of her voice, the angles of her face. I have a hard time imagining her ever smiling. “Quite a lot.”
I’m saved from responding to this by Dylan appearing kind of miraculously at my side, Teresa right behind him.
“Director Takafar,” Dylan says. “I didn’t realize you were coming tonight.”
“It is not possible for me to attend your cousin’s party tomorrow. I thought I would pay my respects here.”
If Dylan thinks this is at all weird, he doesn’t show it. Just says, “That’s very kind of you,” with this easy sort of sincerity that I don’t think I could muster myself. There’s not much about that woman that suggests kindness.
“Additionally,” she says to him, “there is something I would like to discuss with you in private.”
Dylan’s eyebrows kind of raise, but he gives her a little nod. “I can speak to you now.”
They excuse themselves—or rather, Dylan does the excusing—and then they walk off and leave me and Teresa standing there together, and compared to facing this Nunarai Takafar person, I am definitely way more uncomfortable now.
Still, when Teresa’s eyes shift over to me, it’s kind of a shock. I mean, this is the first time she’s ever looked at me like she truly hates my guts.
“I heard you had a bad dream last night,” she says like it’s obvious that bad dreams are real childish. “It must’ve been so terrible, to make you go crashing into Dylan’s room like that.”
She pauses as if she’s waiting for me to respond, but I’m pretty sure nothing I could say would make this conversation go in a direction that I’d appreciate.
“Did you know that Uncle Wyn brews a calming tea that helps people sleep?”
I make myself just look at her still, wait to see what’s coming.
“Seems to me that it’d make much more sense to go rushing off to his room the next time you have a bad dream.” She flashes me one of her killer smiles. “Don’t you think?”
Then—before I can even comprehend what she’s doing—she brings her hand up to my face and sort of pats my cheek, as if I really am just some kid or something. And with just that one, stupid gesture she manages to make me feel real pointless and ridiculous and small.
It takes me a second after she’s walked away before I can even breathe, and a second after that before I realize that I am totally furious. I’m not sure what makes me madder, the thing that she just did to me or the fact that I let her do it. Or maybe it’s the fact that I’m dealing with this sort of thing at all. That when there are people out there dying because of me, I’m stuck at this frivolous little party, letting that evil princess treat me like I’m some sort of a joke.
And it only makes me feel more foolish to think that for a while tonight I’d forgotten what my role here in Daxa is supposed to be. For a while I was actually letting myself have fun.
There’s a word that they use in the Painter world—bisher—that means someone who’s just totally rubbish, and I can’t decide whether it’s her or me that it describes best right now.
I spin around on one foot and start pushing my way past people, heading toward the refreshment table as if it offers some sort of escape. As I go, it occurs to me just how many strangers there are here and that, for all I know, any number of them could be takers. It threatens to make me feel even more vulnerable and small, which just makes me all the angrier.
When I reach the refreshment table I grab a plate and start just shoveling food onto it like it’s the end of the world and I’m gathering rations. I don’t notice Gwilim until he’s pretty much right by my side.
“Why the long face, little cousin?” he asks, and my stomach practically jumps straight out through my chest.
As I spin around toward him, the jelly-filled pastry I’m currently holding goes slipping out of my fingers and real nearly beans him in the stomach, grazing his suit jacket as he dodges out of the way. The look he gives me then is full of so much scolding you’d think I’d thrown the thing at him on purpose.
“Now, what was that for?” he asks, painting away the powder trail that the pastry left behind. He’s dressed like some rockstar straight out of the 1960s, with a sort of Beatles hairdo and a real well-tailored suit.
“Geez,” I say, not bothering to hide my exasperation. “How do all of you Lucases manage to look so freaking good in pretty much anything you wear?”
He’s stooping down to pick up the pastry, and he looks up at me with this laughter in his eyes.
“I could say the same of you, of course.” He stands up and hands the pastry to a passing steel face. “Were you planning on eating all those things tonight?” he asks me, eyeing the pile of food on my plate.
“Yeah, actually,” I answer real truthful. “I was probably going to shove every last bite of it down my throat while hiding by myself in a corner.”
“Crikey,” he says all sarcastic, as if the word itself is a joke. “Something seems to have ruined your night. I’m all ears, you know. Should you need a chance to talk about it.”
It beats me how he can come across as sincere at the same time that he’s clearly making fun of me. Maybe it’s his eyes or something. All laughing and unreserved.
“I do not want to talk about it,” I say, and his lip sort of twitches.
“Fair enough. I’m not going to let you mope all night, though. You and I are going to dance.”
I’m about to tell him that we are definitely not going to do that, but he’s already taking my plate out of my hand.
“You won’t be needing any of this,” he says, setting the food back down on the refreshment table. “Come on.”
When he grabs my hand he holds it tight, like this is a hand that he likes holding. Like he’s actually aware of what it means to be holding someone’s hand, and like he knows I’m also aware of it.
I follow him to the dance floor, feeling suddenly kind of confused and exhilarated. And dancing with him doesn’t exactly help that feeling to go away. He dances like it’s second nature to him—like it’s as habitual a thing as taking a walk in the park—and I’m surprised that he’s not at all satirical about it even. Though he does keep leaning in close to me to whisper real wry critiques of just about anyone that passes by.
“Eilian’s going to be furious when she sees you’re here and you came to talk to me first,” I say after a while.
He just smiles and does this lift of his eyebrows that’s basically the same thing as a shrug.
“Perhaps she shouldn’t get her way all the time,” he says, with this laughing smile that makes my heart do a triple beat.
We’re swinging around in this gently ascenséd turn, when the music just suddenly comes to an end, leaving all of us on the dance floor to sort of stumble to a stop ourselves. There’s some kind of commotion by one of the ballroom doors, and as we look to see what it’s all about Gwilim takes the opportunity to slide his arm over my shoulder all casual and easy.
After a few minutes, I catch sight of a security detail surrounding a real tall man—all perfectly styled hair and a movie star-worthy sense of poise—who’s making his way through the crowd, stopping every few steps to shake hands and grace party guests with his impressive smile.
I don’t need the sudden tension in Gwilim’s body to tell me the identity of the man. He’s definitely much older than Gwilim is and, I’m thinking, a whole lot more arrogant, but other than that the resemblance is real uncanny. He’s got to be Gwilim’s dad. In other words, the president of the Painter Republic.
At the moment he’s bending over a little elderly woman, holding her hand in both of his and looking into her eyes with a real practiced air of attentiveness as she talks. Off to the side a photographer’s snapping photos of the two of them, the flash of her camera going off so rapid I’m surprised it’s not sending anyone into an epileptic fit.
President Lucas nods his agreement to whatever it is the elderly lady’s just said, and he pats her hand all comforting before moving on to to the next person waiting for a chat. The whole vibe he puts out is like he just can’t get enough of listening to these people. Like they’re all doing him real big favors by taking up so much of his time.
When he notices Gwilim and me standing there though, a dozen or so yards away from him now, this cruel little smile pulls at the corners of his mouth. He excuses himself from the woman he’s currently talking to and starts moving all purposeful toward us through the crowd.
Glancing up at Gwilim, I take in the expression on his face—anger, maybe some sort of disgust even—and I’m suddenly sure I don’t want anything to do with whatever’s about to go down between the two of them.
I try to sort of slip out from under Gwilim’s arm, but his grip on my shoulders just gets a little tighter.
“Oh, don’t go abandoning me now,” he says with this real dark humor, his eyes never leaving his dad’s face. “You’ll have to meet the man eventually.”
As if by some sort of pre-arranged cue, Dylan and Eilian materialize out of the crowd then, lining themselves up on either side of Gwilim and me like a couple real fancily dressed bodyguards. Just as Gwilim’s dad reaches us, the photographer darts out ahead of the president’s own security detail and immediately starts snapping photos of the five of us together.
“An unexpected family reunion,” the president says to Gwilim. “I’d not thought to see you here. My sources tell me you’ve been avoiding most of your family ties of late.”
The security guards have lined themselves up in a sort of perimeter around us now. I know they’re just protecting the president from any threat that might try to get through from the outside, but I can’t help feeling more like they’re trapping us in.
“I’ve been visiting friends,” Gwilim responds, all cool and unwelcoming. “You should teach your sources not to exaggerate.”
President Lucas accepts this with a little nod of his head, this look on his face like he’s mildly amused by it.
“Odd choice in friend who’s been getting so much of your attention, though. Son of the man who put your uncle in jail?”
My reaction to this little bombshell about Tom Cloutier is probably real visible on my face, but at this point nobody’s paying any attention to me.
“How is my brother, by the way?” the president asks Dylan and Eilian. “I believe you still see him dutifully.”
When Dylan answers, you don’t have to look too hard to see the irritation there on his face.
“We saw him this morning,” he says, which is only slightly less of a surprise to me than the news about Tom Cloutier. I mean, neither Dylan or Eilian even mentioned going to see their dad. “Da’s as well as could be hoped, under the circumstances.”
“Yes, it must still be quite hard on him, to have been caught in such a hypocrisy.”
The effect of those words is like the shock of a thunderclap. I feel it in the sharpened tension of Gwilim’s arm, see it in the expression on Dylan’s face. But it’s Eilian, who’s mostly been feigning boredom up until now, that can’t help responding.
“He didn’t do it!” she spits out, and I notice the photographer flash this tiny little, vicious smile before snapping a photo of Eilian’s angry face, as if the woman knows exactly what’s going on here and she couldn’t find it any more entertaining.
Kind of surprised, I look at the president to see if he noticed it, but then something happens that makes it pretty much a moot point.
“You,” a voice hisses out from behind him, and he turns real sharp to see who it is.
Gwilim recognizes the person before I do, and he’s already stepping around to block me from view by the time I realize it’s that woman Elspeth standing there. She’s just outside the ring of bodyguards, staring President Lucas down like she’d love nothing more than to break his neck. I mean, I thought the way she acted toward me was pretty intense, but right now she looks downright scary.
“You did this to me.”
“Excuse me?” President Lucas asks, sounding truly confused, if curious.
His guards are barring Elspeth’s way, though they haven’t made a move to do anything else yet. They’re waiting for the president to give them some sort of signal, but he doesn’t seem too inclined to.
“What is it you imagine I did?” he asks, and that cruel little smile’s playing on his lips again.
I’m wondering where in the world Elspeth came from. I mean, she’s all dressed up for the ball—and she actually looks pretty good, healthy even—but if she’d been here the whole time, I’m pretty sure I’d have noticed.
“You think,” she chomps at him, “that your conscience can remain clean because you never laid a hand on me yourself?”
At this point everyone even sort of near us has noticed that something’s going on, and I can’t be the only one that hears the bite in the president’s voice when he responds.
“I don’t know you, woman. And I don’t know what you mean to say.”
He practically towers over her with his authoritative, athletic body, but even still when she takes the teeniest, tiniest little step toward him, there’s something so menacing about it that I’m surprised he doesn’t even react.
“They may have tinkered with my memory,” she says, all chilling and calm, “but my painting is still very much intact.”
Then all at once, with a sudden tensing of her muscles and a guttural, terrifying sort of scream, she erupts into a pillar of electricity and flame.
Previous: Chapter 17
Next: Chapter 19
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