Ethan smiled as he watched how happy the boys were to see Rothan. They tussled and played and laughed, and they made him smile, too.
Kierah had brought the boy again.
His brother. He hadn’t told Rothan about that yet, though. The kid had enough on his plate without having to process that they shared the same father.
He hadn’t told anyone else about it, either. Only Terrell knew.
He glanced over at her, where she stood on the other side of the group, also watching the boys.
He was terrified.
He’d confessed as much to Terrell the other night, that every time Kierah returned, he was afraid he’d do something to make her not return again.
According to Terrell, Kierah thought he was worth something.
He glanced in her direction again, and studied her face. She was beautiful, as always. He let himself admit that now. But tonight, something was missing. That spark she always brought with her wasn’t there.
He was afraid to, but he needed to ask why.
Slowly, he began edging his way over to her. As he got nearer, she looked up at him, and the intensity of her gaze unnerved him. He didn’t know what it meant. It almost looked sad, and a million miles away.
Closing the distance between them, he leaned back against the wall next to her.
“Hey,” he whispered, keeping his voice lower than the conversation of the boys. “Everything okay?”
She didn’t speak right away, like she was weighing whether or not to admit it. Instead, all she said was, “Not here.”
He understood. With a nod toward the exit, he slowly headed out, hoping the boys wouldn’t take too much notice. Terrell would, he knew. But he’d deal with that later. Besides, Terrell seemed to be coming around, lately. After that last conversation, he almost — almost — seemed to approve of Kierah, without saying those exact words. It was closer than he’d ever imagined Terrell getting.
Kierah followed him.
When they were alone outside the Wall, he asked her again. “So, what’s going on?”
She sighed, the intensity in her eyes flaring up before dimming into submission. “I just — I don’t want tonight to end.” She paused. “When it does, I don’t know when I can come back.”
His heart dropped. “Won’t it be just a few days?” he asked. “Like always?”
Always. It was an odd word to use. It hadn’t “always” been like this. Only a few months, at best. And even less than that since he’d started actually looking forward to her visits.
But it’s all he wanted to remember. He didn’t want to look back to the time before Kierah.
“Not this time,” she said. “I think I need to stay away for a little while.”
He fought the sudden panic rising in him. “Why?”
“It’s a stupid reason,” She ducked her head. “I just feel so weak saying this out loud to you, of all people.”
“Because it seems so trivial compared to what you go through every day. But for whatever reason, I just — I’m not as strong as you. And I guess coming here at night this often, I can’t — this sounds stupid but I can’t stay awake during the day.
“Which I don’t give a damn about, and I’d gladly be tired during the day if it meant I got to see you at night — but the problem is, people are noticing. Including the prince. And that’s what has me worried.
“But see, it’s stupid, right? I’m complaining to you, who does hard labor every day, about me being tired.”
She looked so self-conscious, he wasn’t sure which he felt worse about — what she was saying, or that she felt so bad saying it.
“It isn’t stupid,” he told her, trying not to think too much about the part about her needing to stay away, and how close it felt to his dream. “You’re human. You’re allowed to be tired. But why does it have you worried?”
“Because someone told me once that I shouldn’t draw attention to myself. That I should just float in the middle, not be too good or too bad at anything,” she said. “Everything I do is under a microscope as it is, being a part of the experiment.
She broke off, taking a slow breath before composing herself.
“I don’t want that to happen. I’ve gotta get them off my tail, and the only way to do that is to stay away for a little while. Wait ’til suspicions die down.
“I hate it. I hate it. But if I don’t, if I keep coming, eventually someone’s gonna find out, and then — they’ll keep me from coming back.
“And I don’t want to think about what they’ll do to you.
“I wouldn’t be able to handle it if anything happened to you guys. I can barely handle it as it is, thinking I can’t come back for a while. I don’t —
“It’s just not fair, I don’t want to go.”
Ethan didn’t answer. Maybe this wasn’t exactly like his dream. She’d stay away, but not because she wanted to.
“Two weeks,” he said finally. It sounded so long, but infinitely less than forever. “Well, we’ll still be here when you get back.” He said it with a smile, but it was only to break the tension. “It’s not like we’re going anywhere.”
Kierah allowed herself a small chuckle. But it didn’t cut her frustration.
“It’s not fair,” she said again. “None of it’s fair! The other Enders do things they’re not supposed to do all the time! They have relationships and break curfew and sneak out all the time.
“They never get caught, they never have to worry about the consequences. Because the people they see are Nobles, or other Enders in the experiment, or soldiers, or guards. Not —”
She stopped abruptly. Even in the dim light, he could see her face turning red, though whether that was out of anger, or embarrassment over what she had been about to say, he couldn’t guess. But he knew the last word, and he quietly finished it for her.
She ducked her head, self-conscious of the word and the prejudice against it.
“It kind of makes sense though,” he acknowledged, as much as he hated to say it. “I mean, the people they’re seeing are probably just down the hallway. We’re a little bit further away than that.”
“But so what?” she asked. “Who cares how far away you are? None of you deserve to be here! They treat you the way they do because of a label, because they think you’re not on the same level of humanity as they are.
“You should have seen my friend Zera, when I told her that you guys had the sickness. I told her you were all dying. And the way that she said it didn’t matter, that you guys didn’t matter — she didn’t care. Because you’re slaves. No other reason. You’re slaves, and that makes you less human than her. Just like the Nobles. It doesn’t matter to them who you are or what you’ve actually done, just what you’re called.
“They don’t understand that we’re all the same. She forgot where she came from, that she did absolutely nothing to be living in the palace right now. She was just in the right place at the right time, and that’s exactly what happened to me. That’s what happened to you, too — except you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It had nothing to do with what you did. Or with who you are. And it’s just — it’s not fair!”
He couldn’t tell if it was just the way the light from the unbroken lamp was hitting her eyes, but it looked like she was tearing up.
“You weren’t there, though,” he pointed out quietly. “You didn’t see what actually happened. You’re only taking my word for it.”
She looked at him seriously, blinking back what might have been tears. “I didn’t need to be there. I’m here. And that’s enough for me. The person I know could never have done something that deserved anything even close to this.
Her expression was so emphatic, he had a hard time imagining her as ever being tired.
“But this is where you are,” she said, mellowing. “And I wish I didn’t ever have to leave.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“Yes, I do,” she insisted.
He didn’t believe her. He couldn’t.
As much as she railed against the people who lived at the palace, that’s still where she lived. As miserable as she might be there, she’d still gotten used to all the comforts that came with it. None of those were even remotely replicated in Kelmar. She knew this. She couldn’t consciously give up what she had. Nobody in their right mind would, no matter how much they despised the people who gave it to them.
The palace was soft, warm, beautiful — everything Kierah was. Kelmar was so far from that. Cold, dark, ugly. She didn’t belong there. She never would.
Even if he wished she did.
“You deserve so much more than this place,” he said.
“So do you!” she shot back at him. “You don’t deserve to be here, but this is where you are. And this is — this is where I want to be. I don’t … I don’t want to leave you.”
“Well, we don’t want you to leave either,” he admitted.
She hesitated, weighing what she was about to say next. “No,” she said quietly. “Not ‘we.’”
He tilted his head, not understanding.
He stared at her as she took a deep breath, like she was about to dive into an ocean.
“Maybe it’s wrong, maybe this is saying too much, and if it is, just tell me, if it’s crazy and you don’t feel the same. But — this night won’t last forever, and I don’t want to waste it while I’ve got it. While I’ve got the chance to tell you —” she paused.
His heart was racing, as he listened to what she was saying and followed it through to conclusion. He couldn’t believe it.
“I care about you, Ethan,” she finished. “When I’m with you, I feel alive. Maybe that’s wrong. I’m sorry, maybe I shouldn’t have said anything — but you’re the reason I don’t want to leave. If I had to pick any place to stay forever, it would be wherever you are. And if that means here, I’d stay in a heartbeat. If you — if you wanted me.”
She hung her head a little, biting her lip. The tears he’d seen in her eyes now mixed with something like hope. Hope, and fear. It was the most vulnerable he’d ever seen her.
It couldn’t be true, he couldn’t have just heard her say those words — but he had. She had just said them, said she cared about him.
Terrell had been right, he realized. She had come for Rothan, but she stayed for him.
Because she cared about him.
She’d just said it.
She was still watching him, waiting for him to say something. But he didn’t have the words to say. He felt like the weight of a month’s mining quota had been lifted off his shoulders, and his knees might give way under the newfound lightness. But he couldn’t tell her that.
Words couldn’t express what he felt.
He reached out a trembling hand and touched her face. It was all he knew to do. He didn’t know how he felt, because he’d never felt this way before. All he could think about was how beautiful she looked, how breathless she made him feel. Her face was the softest thing he’d ever touched.
The way her face lit up could have illuminated the entire barracks. He couldn’t imagine the relief she felt — except he could. He knew exactly how she felt, because he felt the same.
She closed the small distance between them and reached her arms out. His heart raced as she wrapped those arms around him. Air seemed to vanish from his lungs.
He couldn’t remember ever being embraced before, not like this. Part of him almost recoiled, his first instinct telling him to shrink back, to fight it — but he didn’t want to. Somehow, without knowing it, it was exactly what he wanted.
It took his breath away. He’d felt many things in his life that made him tremble, catch his breath, struggle to find air. That wasn’t new. The new part was that this time, somehow, he wanted it. He needed it.
Closing his eyes, he enveloped her in his own arms, pulling her toward him. She melted into him, her head nuzzled into his chest. He was sure she could hear his heart about to beat out of it.
The world softened around him. The darkness faded, the Wall faded. Exhaustion, quota, Garn disappeared from existence, for just that moment. Fear remained, but it was a different kind of fear than he’d ever known.
It was all completely new, and he was afraid that it was wrong, dangerous. It was an unknown, and his only experience with the unknown was that it would hurt him in the end.
But right now, he didn’t care. What he felt right now was worth any risk.
Kierah was flying.
Her arms were wrapped around the last person in the world she could have imagined falling for. And he’d become the one person to ever hold her heart.
She’d told him. She’d actually come right out and said it.
It had been the scariest thing she’d ever said to him, even more than the first few visits when she’d thought he’d kick her out. Because back then, her pride was all she had to lose. Rothan was safe, nothing was really at risk. And her pride was flexible. It had been wounded before.
This wasn’t about her pride. This time, she had much more to lose.
She’d never cared about someone like this, and unless he’d left some gaping hole in the history he’d told her, he hadn’t either. Maybe he still didn’t. Maybe it was all one-sided. Maybe she was going about this all wrong, should have waited, kept her mouth shut.
Once upon a time, she’d been a person who didn’t take risks. She’d stuck to her routine, played it safe.
She might not be able to control what their future might be, but she could control what she did with their present.
She’d told him. She’d wanted to tell him.
And from the way he held her, she knew he felt the same. He wanted her to stay, he said. He wanted her.
She felt his breath brush softly against her forehead, as gentle as a breeze. His lips were so close to her, that her skin surged with warmth. He was so close. She’d never been this close to anyone before.
She could feel the pressure of his body against hers, and she closed her eyes and sank into him. He was everything right now. He was all she wanted. He was all she would ever want — and she would have to let him go —
But not now.
For this moment, she was here. In this moment, he was everything. He surrounded her, encompassed her, gave meaning to her very existence. She couldn’t let him go. Just for right now, she let him be everything to her.
Daring to move, she tilted her chin up toward him, and found his gaze met hers. His eyes — those dark, deep eyes, that could carry a lifetime’s worth of turmoil behind them and give away nothing, those eyes that could suspect and accuse, or stare blankly to conceal any emotion — those same eyes now ignited with fire and passion, yet in the recesses, left bare the truth she knew was there — that he was scared, too. He could disguise everything so perfectly — but not to her. As he held her, he looked so vulnerable, as the fear and the fire fought within him, and it tugged at her heart.
Reaching up, she touched his face.
It felt like such an intimate thing to do, but she didn’t let herself doubt. Gently, she ran her fingers along his cheek, the skin warm and rough beneath her touch. She felt the bristles of his beard, softly framing his jaw. For an instant, his eyes closed, as if the sensation was more than he could process.
When he opened them again, the emotion behind them engulfed her.
His face was barely an inch from hers, their eyes locked, her heart pounding. His lips hovered just above hers.
And then suddenly, the distance was gone. She wasn’t sure if he had leaned in or she had risen up, but the space between them vanished. His lips touched hers, and her heart leapt into her throat.
His kiss was warm and soft, radiating energy and gentleness. She leaned into him, her mouth pressing against his in a spark of warmth and security, her yearning melting into his strength. She could feel his body tremble beneath her touch, and she realized she was shaking too.
This was a kiss, this is what it was supposed to feel like.
She’d never kissed anyone before, not once. And she couldn’t have imagined it would be like this.
Abandoning fear, he tightened his arms around her, pulling her against him, her arms around his neck.
It was more than she could have ever hoped for.
Pulling away just for an instant, she tried to catch her racing heartbeat, her breath coming in ragged shivers.
His eyes burned as they stared into hers. He wanted this, too. It wasn’t just in her imagination.
“I don’t want to leave,” she whispered.
He pulled her back to him, gentleness overcoming his strength this time. He didn’t speak, and she wondered if it was because he didn’t trust his voice.
“I wish I could stay,” she continued. “Or that you could come with me. You don’t deserve this place.”
He leaned back enough so she would look up at him. The softness in his eyes made her heart melt.
– – – ———- – – – –
The wine glass in Terzahn’s hand cracked, then broke, scattering shards that pelted like rain across the floor, mingled with the splash of wine the glass could no longer contain.
His dark eyes watched the security feed from Kelmar, and grew darker. His hand had gripped the glass too tightly, and only grew tighter as he watched. Now, the wine was spilled, and the glass was gone.
He didn’t like what he was seeing.
Azor had pointed out that, given what they knew about the Kaelen girl’s habits and the barracks guards’ schedules, she’d visit the night before the prince’s party. He’d suggested that the prince might want to come and watch the live feed for himself, for the pure amusement of it. It was, after all, the day before his birthday.
Terzahn had agreed, coming along with a glass of his favorite wine to complement the evening’s entertainment. He now sat in the least uncomfortable chair he could find in front of the bank of security monitors. But the evening was going less than humorously, and his favorite wine was in danger.
He stared at the two figures on the screen, his Ender and Azor’s slave. They’d separated from the rest of the group of children, and were speaking. Terzahn would have to rely on the slave Garn’s report later of what was actually said.
But right now, he wasn’t concerned with their words. He didn’t need Garn to tell him what his eyes could clearly see.
The slave and the Ender embraced. And not just any embrace, oh no, this wasn’t a casual goodbye embrace, or a good-to-see-you embrace.
This was more than that.
And then — a kiss — a kiss?!
This was getting in the way of everything. He already had his own plans for the Kaelen girl; if this slave had as much of a hold on her heart as he appeared to at this moment, things could get dicey.
He tensed. He was the prince. He, himself. And this girl was falling into the arms of —
Azor turned away from the monitor to look at him, surprised by the anger in his voice.
“And she didn’t even deserve it,” he snarled. “She was extra. She was the exception. I already had collected all my Enders when she came here, and I let her in. And here she is, ignoring all that and falling for this boy –”
That was when the wine glass was crushed in his hand. The shards flew.
Azor didn’t flinch. “He can be infuriating, can’t he? That’s what he does. No matter how many times you kick him down, he just keeps getting in your head.”
Terzahn could tell he was speaking from experience on that one.
“The trick is,” Azor continued, “to remember that you’re the one calling the shots, here. You’re the one with the power. Let the little pawns do what they want; at the end of the day, you’re the one they have to answer to.”
Terzahn stood and stepped closer to the monitor, each step crushing the broken pieces of glass under his boot.
“This is all a game for you,” Azor reminded him. “Don’t forget that. They’re just pieces in the bigger picture. If you didn’t want to, you didn’t have to let her get into the mines, you didn’t have to let them play along. You could have put your foot down, and caught her at the beginning.
“But you didn’t want to. You wanted to see what would happen, and this is what happened. It doesn’t have to change what you will ultimately do. You can still have her.
“This just makes the process more interesting. You’re the one in control, here. You make the rules, you direct the game. They’ll do what you let them, until you tell them otherwise. I mean, you are the prince.”
Terzahn didn’t take his eyes off the monitor, where the slave and the Ender entwined. He didn’t try to calm the anger he felt, but he knew Azor was right.
“Plus,” Azor added, “tomorrow is your birthday. So do something nice for yourself. What should we do?”
Azor looked surprised. “Tonight?”
“As soon as she leaves. As soon as those little brats are asleep, send someone in, and take him.”
“Of course sir, if that’s what you want. Shall I go myself?”
Terzahn was about to say yes, when his eyes lit up with an idea. For the first time that evening, he smiled.
“No, not you. There’s someone else, who I think would be even more fitting. Like you said, I’m going to make my own entertainment. Oh, and don’t forget the spy, make sure he gets what’s coming to him.” He smiled a little more. “You know, this could make this whole evening actually worthwhile.”
He took another step towards the monitors, crushing the shattered glass beneath his feet.
T H E E N D
THAT WAS IT!!! Yes, a cliffhanger, because that’s how I roll 🙂 Also yes, there’s more coming eventually (it’s for a trilogy!)
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