Vivien felt like screaming.
It wouldn’t help anything. It certainly wouldn’t help her channel. All it would do was startle Brad and summon Aedan into the room. If she knew Brad at all, he’d feel bad that she was frustrated; as for his brother, he’d only admonish Vivien to try harder. As if she hadn’t been trying her best for three days.
“Yes, I am focusing,” she replied, barely hanging on to her calm. She didn’t trust herself to say another word and remain civil, so she clamped her mouth shut. It wasn’t Brad’s fault that she was failing miserably. She had no one to blame but herself.
Brad must have picked up on how annoyed she was because he didn’t challenge her words. He remained perfectly still, sitting across her on the other side of the dining table. Had the table not been so wide, she could have reached out and asked to hold his hand. Between them, on the polished, golden-hued wood, a single roseberry waited, a deep red color with purple hints, perfectly round. That innocent fruit, leftover from a light breakfast, taunted Vivien.
She leaned forward until her chin was just an inch from where her hands were laying flat on the table, fingertips touching. Sweat was beginning to bead on her temples, and her eyes strained from being narrowed for so long, pointed like weapons at the berry.
The completely still berry.
Shaking her head, she pushed herself away from the table. The feet of her chair scraped loudly on the stone floor.
“It’s not working,” she muttered, looking across the table at Brad. “I don’t see the colors around you. And everything is still the way it’s supposed to be, not all…” She waved her fingers, trying to find the right word. “Gray.”
But ‘gray’ didn’t convey the absence of color that took over the world when someone channeled, as she had been trying to do for the past half hour—for the past three days—without success. At one point, she had thought she was finally on the right track: the objects around her had seemed less vivid, while bursts of bright, swirling colors had flickered over Brad, indicating that he was channeling.
But the Quickening—the strange, magical force Vivien was trying to wield—had remained out of her reach. She now wondered if she hadn’t imagined the entire thing.
“Talk me through it,” Brad said in that gentle, reasonable voice of his, the one that usually calmed her but that, at that moment, with the disappointment of failure like a bitter taste at the back of her throat, only made her feel worse. “Tell me exactly what you are doing, and maybe we can figure out where the problem is.”
She let out a frustrated sound and stood, pushing the chair back against the table so hard that the roseberry finally moved, rolling an inch or so on the smooth surface.
She turned her back on Brad and leaned against the sill of the wide windows through which sunlight poured into the dining room. She looked out, hoping to cool down again. This side of the castle opened onto a field of wildflowers, and ever since she’d been thrown into this odd, new world a few days ago, the flowers had soothed her frayed nerves. She thought it might have been an echo of her past; maybe as a little girl she had played in those flowers or made bouquets of them for her mother.
She didn’t remember doing it, but then, she had very few memories of her past, except for a few flashes and dreams. She’d had the old dream again, last night. The old nightmare, in which some unseen pursuers chased her through woods until a man she didn’t know, a man who bore the same tattoo as Brad, marking him as one of her guards, saved her. Had the tattoo been on his wrist instead of the palm of his hand, she would have thought he was Brad; he certainly had the same pale blue eyes. She wished she remembered more than the color of his eyes or the way his tattoo glinted like metal in the sun.
She knew what had prompted the dream, if not what it meant. She was stressed, more than she’d ever been in her life. Back on Earth, the dream had surged when some important school project or exam loomed, or on the eve of a major fencing competition. Here, on Foh’Ran—a strange land of magic of which she was the heir—the stakes were higher than good grades or new trophies for her shelves. The stakes were her life and the lives of her bodyguards.
She needed to channel. She needed to master that skill, and fast; she only had fifteen days left before her birthday. Then, she’d have to face Rhuinn again, the man who sat on the throne that, she’d been told, was hers; the man who was responsible for the death of Anabel, the elderly aunt who had raised her. She hated Rhuinn for what he had done, but she still wasn’t sure she wanted the throne; her ambivalence didn’t help her attempts at channeling in the slightest.
Guilt and grief cast a shadow on her thoughts that even the sight of beautiful flowers couldn’t dispel. On the contrary, looking outside made her feel more incompetent. Until yesterday there had been no path leading to the white stone steps that ended at tall, heavy, wooden double doors that Brad called ‘the grand entrance.’ There had been only occasional spots of gravel among the flowers. Now, though, she could see the beginning of a path, white and gleaming as it curved gently toward the distance.
An older man had come yesterday and requested an audience with ‘Dame Vivien.’ He explained that he had been an apprentice gardener in this very house back under her mother’s reign.
“If it pleases you,” he said, his voice shaking a little but his deep-set eyes steady as he considered her from his kneeling position, “I would restore the grounds to what they once were.”
When she said yes, his entire face lit up, and for a moment she saw him as he might have been as a young man, the wrinkles lining his face gone, his skin tanned but without the leathery look of someone who had worked long days in the sun, his hair full and black rather than thinning salt and pepper. She was half certain it had been a memory, but before she had a chance to ask if they had met before, Aedan had cleared his throat at her side.
“With your permission, Dame Vivien, I will question this man and make sure of his loyalty before you can appoint him as groundskeeper.”
Although his tone remained polite, she read his displeasure in his eyes and knew she’d done something wrong—again. He explained later that she shouldn’t trust every person who showed up after having heard of her return, because they might be spies sent by the king. If that was the case, she didn’t know why Aedan had hired a cook that same morning without even inquiring about Vivien’s opinion. Why did they even need a cook?
The ‘questioning’ must have revealed nothing nefarious, because the man—Elver, he had said his name was—had started working early that morning. And now, after a few hours of work, he was recreating the overrun path with the same Quickening that continued to elude Vivien.
Gentle hands settled on her shoulders, and Vivien started. Caught in her grim thoughts, she had not noticed Brad approach behind her. He could be extremely quiet when he wanted, although Aedan was even better at it. She watched his reflection in the window and leaned back against his chest, feeling the strength of his body, the safety it brought her. His bold features were set in an encouraging smile.
“You can do it,” he whispered. “You’ve done it before.”
And that was the worst part of it all. Vivien had channeled before, had been filled by the exhilarating power of the Quickening. It had even been easy: Brad had guided her, explained to her what to do with a few words, and Vivien had instinctively found the strange magic he had said was her birthright.
Since then, however, her efforts had been for naught. It didn’t help that Brad had pushed her gently but relentlessly for three long days. She understood why: she had only two weeks before she had to stand in front of Rhuinn again, and if she still couldn’t channel then—
“You’ll take me back home, won’t you?” she whispered. “If I can’t channel? You’ll take me back to Earth?”
The reflection of his soft smile wavered; his hands tightened for a second on her shoulders before falling to his sides. “You’ll channel again,” he said instead of answering. “There’s no reason why you shouldn’t.”
Vivien turned and looked up at him. She knew why he was evading her question. If he took her back to Earth to escape Rhuinn, Brad would have to renounce the Quickening; channeling there would put them in danger.
Not only that, but if they left, Aedan wouldn’t be able to accompany them, and they’d condemn him to a lonely life that would end when the shields protecting the castle failed. Vivien knew she’d feel guilty if it came to that, but what good was she to this land or to anyone if she couldn’t channel?
As if thinking about Aedan were enough to summon him, he appeared behind Brad’s shoulder in the doorway. He couldn’t come inside, not when sunlight bathed the formal dining room and its table, long enough to accommodate two dozen people. If Vivien was honest with herself, that was the reason why she had remained here for today’s attempt at channeling. Bad enough that she had to fail repeatedly in front of Brad; she didn’t need Aedan’s reproving stare on top of it.
But a reproving stare was what he offered her now, even though his voice remained level when he asked, “Any progress?”
Vivien pinched her lips together rather than answer as sharply as she wanted to. She didn’t know what it was about Aedan that made her so jittery. It wasn’t the way he looked; he and Brad were identical twins, and she’d long thought that Brad was handsome. Things had been a little better since she’d followed Aedan’s advice on what to say and do when she’d gone to meet Rhuinn. A little better and yet still tense.
“Working on it,” she said. “I think I’ll go for a run.”
Even from across the room, she could see Aedan’s pale blue eyes flashing with a silver gleam; a sure sign of annoyance, Vivien had learned. She had no idea whether he was annoyed that she had blown off his question or that she wanted to go run—he had made it clear he thought the activity was unbecoming for the heir to the throne of Foh’Ran.
Shifting her gaze from Aedan to Brad, she felt an instinctive smile rising to her lips. “Run with me?”
She knew Brad’s answer before he opened his mouth. They’d been running together since long before she’d known he was her sworn bodyguard or he’d admitted he had feelings for her.
“I’ll wait for you outside,” he said.
His hand brushed against hers in a familiar, almost tender way, and fluttering wings seemed to come to life in Vivien’s belly. Flashing him a wider smile, she started for the door, wondering if the two brothers would talk about her in her absence. She knew they disagreed on how best to protect her sometimes. She felt uncomfortable at the thought, but chased the feeling away on her way to her room on the second floor of the castle.
Her clothes took very little space in the chest of drawers standing against the wall. She’d been in a hurry when she packed, and she’d thrown every random article of clothing that had fallen under her hand into her bag. By chance, she had taken sweatpants; they weren’t flattering, but they were more suited for running than the skirt she was changing out of. Her sweatpants and the tee-shirt both smelled of freshly cut grass.
Yesterday afternoon, Doril the cook, a matronly woman with an easy smile and a neat apron tied around her ample waist, had come to inquire if Dame Vivien had any clothing that needed to be laundered. When Vivien replied she’d be happy to do her own laundry if Doril showed her how it was done in this world, she’d thought Doril might die of apoplexy.
Apparently, Doril, like Aedan, had very firm ideas of what a dame could and should do. She had been adamant about not needing any help, however awkward Vivien had felt at the thought of someone doing her laundry for her. Then Vivien had realized Doril would channel to wash the clothes, and she had let it go. She couldn’t let anyone know she was unable to channel, Aedan had said, and on that, at least, she agreed with him. The more people knew about her issues with the Quickening, the more danger she, Brad, and Aedan would face.
Grimacing at the way her mind had once again returned to her failures, Vivien finished tying the laces of her running shoes and bound her hair in a high ponytail. She tried to leave her grim thoughts behind as she joined Brad outside. They persisted at first, but little by little she fell into the familiar rhythm of her feet striking the ground, echoed by Brad’s at her side, and her mind started to clear as it always did when she ran.
She could almost have believed she was back on Earth, before all this had started, when she and Brad had been no more than running buddies. The shimmer of the shields above them, like a giant bowl inverted over the castle and the grounds around it, gave away that, no, they weren’t in the park on the outskirts of the city where she had grown up, ignorant of her true identity.
They couldn’t do a true lap along the edge of the shields: part of it extended into the woods, and echoes of the childhood Vivien did not remember warned her to stay out of the woods, something she had done without question so far. Even so, it took them close to half an hour to complete a full circuit, following the path of crushed high grass and flowers they had created the past few days. The second lap took a little longer as Vivien started to slow down and Brad kept pace with her.
“Are you feeling better?” were his first words when they were past the woods and reached the edge of that familiar slope that descended toward the lake.
“Better?” Vivien repeated, a little out of breath. “I’m fine.”
This was where they usually ended their run before walking back to the castle. Without needing to talk, they both came to a stop. Brad brushed a strand of hair that had escaped her ponytail back behind her ear.
“I know it’s frustrating for you not to be able to channel,” he said, “but you—”
She didn’t want to hear yet again that she had to learn to master the Quickening. She knew that.
She also didn’t want to hear the disappointment in Brad’s voice. He put such hopes in her, thought her capable of so much, that she felt terrible about letting him down.
“Do you want to walk by the lake for a little while?” she cut in, softening the interruption by taking his hand in hers. “Please?”
He smiled at once. “You never have to say please,” he murmured. “Anything you want is yours, you know that.”
She smiled back, feeling a bit of heat creep into her cheeks. He’d first told her he’d do anything she wanted on the edge of the lake they were now approaching. This was where they had first kissed. Where he had first told her he was in love with her. Where she had first channeled, her power and emotions washing over him until his own emotions had mixed with hers and swept both of them into a wave of desire.
There was none of that urgency or burning heat as they walked to the far end of the lake along the shimmering ripples, slowly cooling down from their run, a comfortable silence stretching between them. They both leaned close to the edge to drink a few mouthfuls of crystal-clear and deliciously refreshing water, then started back. Rather than return to the castle right away and to the renewed attempts at channeling she’d have to make, Vivien suggested that they sit together for a while.
When her heart started to accelerate again, it wasn’t because of her run anymore, but because of how close Brad was. She leaned toward him and brushed her mouth against his. The love she felt coming from him at the gentle touch of his lips and tongue was the same as when they’d first sat together on the banks of this lake—and it matched the growing love she felt for him. Her attraction and crush had transformed into something deeper.
Was today the day she’d manage to tell him?
Continued in Quickening