Authors: Nikki McCormack
Those deep blue eyes considered him, the flash of irritation fading away in their vibrant depths. Her gaze sank to her fingers where they rested on the table. “I did what I felt I needed to at the time. I will not belittle any of those decisions with pointless regret. Serivar can choose to accept that or not.”
When she looked up at him again, her eyes narrowed with suspicion and he became aware of the pleased smile creeping across his lips.
“I’m sorry. I was just…,” he paused, trying to pick his words with more care. “You possess so much spirit, my lady. I can’t help wondering if the headmaster would have invited you into the King’s Order at all had he known that beforehand.” Her eyes sparked with anger again and he held up a placating hand. It was like fishing with an actual line and bait as he’d watched the people in Caithin do when he lived with Serivar in his youth. He’d always thought fishing that way a silly process when ascard could accomplish the desired results so much faster. The comparison was all too fitting. Without ascard, he had to manipulate her in other ways. Hook her anger, draw her in, soothe her, provoke her in closer, and soothe her again. “I don’t mean that as an insult. You express considerable strength and conviction. I find that rather admirable.”
“Oh.” Her cheeks flushed a pretty shade of rose and she averted her gaze, shifting as though her chair had become uncomfortable.
Myac sat, relishing the small triumph, and leaned across the table toward her. “Shall we begin?”
She nodded, relief at the change of subject relaxing her features.
“Very well.” He leaned back a bit to put her more at ease. “Recognizing emotion with ascard can be difficult, but given the strength of your connection, you’ve probably already done it by accident at least once. A person’s inner aspect reacts to every emotion they experience, even when their connection is too weak for them to consciously control ascard.” He saw interest flare to life in her eyes now that they were working and allowed an approving smile to touch his lips. Her hunger for knowledge was exquisite in itself. “That reaction is slightly different for every individual emotion. Sorting through and understanding the thousands of tiny variations is one of the harder skills to master. The easiest way to begin sorting out those differences is to study emotional response in yourself. Once you begin to recognize reliably how your inner aspect reacts to emotion, you can start to apply that knowledge to other people.”
She nodded, hands clenched before her on the table now, eager.
It was a heady feeling, being the focus of her attention. Now it was time to see if he could use her hunger for knowledge to learn some things about her. “There are several ways we can approach the process. The most effective teaching method I’ve found is for the student to talk about things that stir a variety of different emotions in them. Being focused on their inner aspect during this process allows them to study the reaction while they are experiencing the emotion.”
She started to pick at the fingernails of one hand with those on the other. “Couldn’t I just think about things instead of talking about them?”
That was exactly the response he expected. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so hard after all. “Your emotions will be more poignant and easy to differentiate if you have the added vulnerability of sharing the triggering thoughts with someone else.”
“Precisely.” She smiled as though he’d agreed with her.
“Out loud.” He gave her a stern look.
“With a stranger?”
“Unless you know someone else who can teach you this.” She pressed her lips together in a tight line and he forged ahead. “When you feel you have a grasp of the effect different emotions have on your inner aspect we can trade roles. I’ll be the subject and you can try to determine my emotional response to different topics based on what you learned from observing your own. When we are done, we’ll no longer be strangers.”
Role swapping was something of a risk given the secrets he was keeping, but it was the only effective way to teach this skill and knowing that he would also be exposing himself in front of her eased a little of the resistance in her eyes. Besides, while he wasn’t very good at masking, he was proficient enough at controlling his emotions, at least outside of the passion she inspired in him, but that wasn’t something he’d had much need to practice with in the past.
Her gaze turned inward while she considered his proposal and she began picking at her fingernails again. The soft clicking of her nails was the only sound for a time. Then her hands stilled and he felt her ease back the masking she had safeguarding her emotions. Meeting his eyes, she gave a nod to indicate that she was ready. The uncertainty that bombarded his senses now gave lie to the gesture but he wasn’t going to squander opportunity.
To begin the session, he asked her easy questions. Did she like horses? What was her favorite color? How did she feel about the rain? The sun? At first, she answered even these simple questions with reluctance, pondering each for much longer than should be necessary, then she began to relax into the lesson, enthusiasm with the results overcoming some of her resistance.
When he felt it fit the trend of the questions, he asked, “Do you have any romantic interests?”
Her expression closed up. “I was engaged for a time.”
So much sharp, burning anger edged with an intense crackling of fear. Why? The power of her reaction suggested that there might have been some kind of abuse involved. Regardless, it pleased him more than it probably should to know that she wasn’t bound to anyone now.
Through the whole process, there remained that undertone of sorrow and aloneness that he had noticed the day before. When she spoke of her dead parents, however, she did so with a curious aloofness and brevity, speaking more fondly of the time spent growing up in her uncle’s home with his sons. When he asked about her time in Lyra, she closed up again, refusing to say any more than she had before. The almost painful itch of curiosity urged him to press the subject, but he resisted, wary of distancing her again.
Her head tilted a fraction to one side, her gaze drilling into him with that captivating burn of boundless inquisitiveness. “You’re frustrated now. Why?”
Apparently, she felt it was time to move on to the next step in their training and Myac had let frustration with her avoidance of the subjects he was most interested in become foremost in his mind. Several possible responses popped forth. He settled for something near to the truth, if only part of it.
“I apologize.” He forced calm over himself as he spoke. “The truth is that I’m rather fascinated by you. I was hoping to learn more about what motivates you from this session, but you’re so reluctant to speak of those things.”
A tiny flare of irritation ignited in response to his partial confession. Resignation and, perhaps, a sense of grudging tolerance quenched it a moment later and she leaned back in her chair. So discerning was her scrutiny then that he fancied he could feel his disguise beginning to crumble before it. Not the most comfortable of sensations.
“You don’t come across as the timid sort, Lord Edan. Why not simply ask me outright what you want to know?”
She had him unsettled. His mind raced through a variety of reasons to excuse himself from the session before something went terribly wrong, but he wouldn’t run from her. That would only make it harder to work with her again. “Would you answer me honestly if I did?”
She met his eyes a moment, a tremor of temptation charging the air. So many words, hung around them, unspoken. Things she wanted to share, but wouldn’t for reasons that he couldn’t know. She wanted a confidant. There was no doubt in his mind of that now. If only he could convince her to let him fill that role.
Then the tremor vanished when she shrugged, willfully casting off temptation. “Probably not.”
“Then I must be clever enough to earn my way past your defenses.”
“You will have to be exceedingly clever, my lord.” Her smile was almost playful, but the masking returned, blocking her emotions from him once more.
He managed to wrestle down the urge to incinerate something with his power. He couldn’t lose patience with her now, especially not with her tuned to his emotions. Learning to mask his emotions better couldn’t happen fast enough.
“I am sorry if I have upset you, Lady Indigo. Perhaps we should move on to something else since you’re picking up on this with such ease.”
A tiny, satisfied smirk touched her lips for the briefest of moments and Myac had another war with his temper as he tried to puzzle out the thoughts behind that look without the advantage of ascard senses. He had come to rely on his ability to read people with ascard far too much. It put him at a significant disadvantage in this situation.
“Lord Edan, I truly appreciate your time, but I would prefer to cut our session short today, if you don’t mind. I know we talked yesterday about working on your masking. If you speak with Headmaster Serivar, he can explain the basics of this kind of masking. I can help you build upon that tomorrow afternoon if you like.”
Why was she in such a hurry to get away now? Had he upset her? “If you wish it, we can call an end to today’s session. I do hope I haven’t offended…”
The gentle smile she gave him then was sincere and sweet enough to make his breath catch in his throat. “No, Lord Edan, you’ve done nothing wrong. I am flattered that you find me so interesting, but I have my own personal conflicts to contend with and I feel unequal to the task of managing them right now. You shouldn’t have to suffer for that. I think it best that I go.”
She rose and he followed suit, hurrying to the door so he could open it for her. On a whim, he held it shut instead, forcing her attention to him. “The headmaster was kind enough to let me a room in his home. I don’t think he or his wife would object if you were to join us for supper some evening.”
Resentment and frustration flashed across her features, so fierce that he almost backed away.
Everything I say and do is wrong with her
A fresh blast of frustration left him fumbling for something to say. Then her masking faltered, only for a few seconds, but long enough for that deep, aching sorrow to wash over him, drowning his frustration with its strength. The emotion vanished again as suddenly as it appeared, tucked back safe behind her walls. Her expression faltered, resentment fading to uncertainty. A touch of sadness darkened her eyes. She lowered her gaze to the floor.
“I’ve had some misfortune with my relationships over the last year,” she murmured. “I need time to figure things out.”
On a whim, he reached out, placing a gentle finger under her chin and lifting until her eyes met his. He feared the gesture might ignite her rage again, but she was vulnerable in that instant, lapsed into in a victim state that she was trying hard to eradicate from her life. He’d seen it in enough people to recognize it and know how easy those fragile moments were to exploit. He needed to capture this one. Use it to his advantage.
“I am truly sorry,” he said, offering a smile as gentle and cautious as his touch. “I won’t mention it again. But, should you change your mind, the invitation will remain open.”
She met his eyes, searching them for several long seconds and he wondered what she thought she saw there. A tempest of lies and deceptions? A deep and earnest longing? Both would be correct.
“Thank you, Lord Edan. Your offer and your understanding are appreciated.”
He nodded, pleased that the gamble had paid off, and opened the door for her, offering a slight bow as she left the room. She had slipped the hook as fish often did, but the bait was out and she would try it again. She was too curious not to.
Indigo strode from the room as fast as she could without breaking into a run. Part of her wanted to turn back and tell him yes, she would join him for supper. What would be the harm? All he had asked for was her company for a meal. Besides, what good could come of spending all her free time hiding away in her residence pining over the man she couldn’t have?
Serivar’s office was empty, so at least there would be no need to fake her composure with him. She hurried away from the room and Edan, from the temptation to confide in someone, reaching out with tendrils of ascard to make sure no one she wanted to avoid was in the area. Even knowing that the Watchmen wouldn’t come after her for it, the process of using ascard to sneak through the streets avoiding people made her feel like a criminal in her own city. It was still better than running into Jayce.
Forcing discomfort aside, she turned her thoughts to the session with Edan. It wasn’t hard. She found him intriguing for some reason she couldn’t quite put her finger on. The man didn’t try to hide that he was attracted to her, which made her uncomfortable, though he’d remained reasonably respectful of her distance. There was nothing wrong with him showing interest. She wasn’t married or even engaged anymore after all, but he would likely continue to express that interest if she didn’t say or do something to discourage him.
On the other hand, setting aside the fact that something about him felt unnervingly familiar at times, there was no logical reason for her to push him away. Part of her resented him from the start because he wasn’t Yiloch, which wasn’t at all fair. She would never be with Yiloch. Edan was attractive, nice, and had asked for nothing from her outside of their professional relationship beyond the sharing of a meal. There was no reason not to at least get to know him.
Jayce had seemed nice enough at first
Also not fair
, she chided herself.
The truth was that she had a reckless urge to let him in so she could finally have someone to talk to who knew about at least one of the biggest secrets in her life, and that worried her.
Joining the King’s Order made it so she couldn’t be completely honest with anyone about who she was and how she spent her time. Now her dissolved engagement with Jayce also made her a subject of cruel gossip and estranged her from Andrea. Lord Caplin, the king’s nephew, had been her best friend in the city for many years, but now that she knew his feelings for her extended beyond friendship, despite his engagement to Andrea, she felt it best not to spend too much time around either of them. That left her with no one in the city.