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Defiance rising, p.25
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       Defiance Rising, p.25

           Amy Miles
 
TWENTY-FOUR

  Winter unleashes its full might on us less than two days after I wake up from Kyan’s second round of unconsciousness. Contrary to his insistence that I find a way to heal myself, I woke to find myself completely healed. Although I was grateful for my pain to be a thing of the past, I should have known Kyan would have ulterior motives.

  For nearly a week straight, I have spent twelve hours days with Kyan, trapped within the confines of the medical cabin I first woke up in. Kyan claims it is for our privacy, but I have a sneaking suspicion he was worried that either Bastien or Eamon would put a stop to his methods of training if they knew how hard he worked me.

  My first task was to learn levitation, the simple act of focusing all of my energy on one object long enough to let it bend to my will. The results have been dismal at best, leaving Kyan silently frustrated and me bruised from head to foot. All I seem to be able to do is toss objects into the air and hurl them around. My control is definitely lacking.

  Exhaustion has become a way of life for me now.

  We have not spoken again of my feelings for Bastien and for that, I am eternally grateful. I’m still unwilling to admit just how deep my feelings for Bastien go, but I know I’m in trouble. The harder I try not to think of him, the more he consumes my thoughts. I think Kyan suspects my inner turmoil is what is stunting my training.

  After a particularly disheartening day of training, I sink onto my bench beside Eamon with a bowl of rabbit stew that would normally be savory enough to draw me from thoughts. Tonight, it is impossible.

  Bastien watches me from across the room while I pretend to eat, slinking into the shadows as Eamon eagerly takes up his place by my side. The first moment he shot me a guarded glance I suspected he’d spoken with Kyan. The goofy grin that followed immediately after confirmed my worst fears.

  Although I am grateful for his presence, there is a definite air of awkwardness between us now that I hate. The closer Eamon draws me in, the further I sense Bastien retreating. I can feel his confusion and his pain, just as I can feel Kyan waiting for me to make a decision.

  “Hey, are you ok?” Eamon asks, poking me in the side. “You’re really quiet tonight.”

  “Yeah.” I instantly plaster on a smile that should have alerted him to my misery, but it doesn’t. It hurts that he can’t see through my façade to the pain lying beneath or maybe he does but is too afraid to admit it. “It was a long day. Kyan is a slave driver.”

  Eamon chuckles. “You should try working with Brym. Now that guy is full on. I haven’t ached like this since we were kids in target training.”

  I can’t help but smirk at him. “Seriously? You’re using your brain, not having wooden chairs fall on you when you can’t levitate them! There is no comparison.”

  He scrunches up his face and tilts his head, weighing out the difference. “Ok, maybe you win this one, but don’t knock the mental weariness I’m dealing with. It’s torture.”

  Toren draws Eamon into a conversation about Kyan’s unusual request for all of us to meet up in the woods after our weapons training the following day, and I’m grateful to be forgotten for the moment. The whole camp is buzzing about Kyan teaching us to use Caldonian weapons. Thirty men reside at the camp, each on varying schedules so as not to raise any suspicions from Commander Drakon. At least half of them view me with undeserved awe. The other half appear to be waiting, but I’m just not sure what exactly they are waiting for.

  I lift my empty spoon to appear to take another mouthful of stew and pause, feeling Bastien’s gaze upon me. I lower the spoon to the bowl and raise my eyes to meet his. An ache grows in my chest. It has been days since we spoke. He knows I am avoiding him, but has no clue why.

  Over the past few days, I’ve tried to figure out what to say to him. I’m unsure of how to explain something to him that I can hardly wrap my own mind around. My emotions are constantly on edge, longing to be with him, to see if he truly feels something for me, but fearing what might happen if he does. I try to swear off him, go cold turkey, but that is easier said than done now that I’ve accepted the fact that Bastien has crashed through my barriers and taken me captive.

  His pain radiates across the room to me as I lurch to my feet, spilling a nearly full bowl of soup across the table. Zahra screeches as she leaps back, her shirt soiled. Eamon whips around to stare up at me, but he is not the only one. The din of voices has faded as many turn to watch.

  “Sorry. Not feeling well,” I mutter as I head for the door. I fling it open wide and dash into the blistering cold. Fierce winds and gusts of snow whip through the camp, chafing my cheeks within seconds. I wrap my arms about myself, hurrying along the ice-glazed path toward the cabin my friends and I now share.

  “Illyria, wait!” Bastien’s boots pound the ground, punching through the thin layer of ice.

  Of course it is Bastien that follows me. He is the only one that knows the true reason I fled. “Leave me be, Bastien. I want to be alone.”

  “No.” His grips my arm, pulling me around to face him. “You can’t keep avoiding me.”

  “I don’t…I don’t want to,” I cry through chattering teeth.

  Bastien peels off his black wool coat and slings it around my shoulders. “Let’s get you inside.”

  Unwilling to take no for an answer, Bastien places his hand upon my lower back and leads me toward our cabin. The instant I’m inside, he leans his weight against the wooden door and throws the latch in place. I count my steps through the dark room, mentally visualizing the sparse layout of our cabin, identical to the medical cabin.

  My fingers tremble as I try to light the candle. After three attempts, Bastien rescues me and the candle blazes to life. He reaches for my hands, rubbing them between his. “You’re frozen straight through.”

  “I’m fine,” I chatter.

  He gives me a knowing glance and leads me toward my cot, lifting the covers for me to slip inside. I pull off my boots and throw them aside. Bastien waits for me to wiggle out of my coat before wrapping the comforter around my shoulders. He turns his attention to lighting the fire. Once it catches, a warmth slowly emanates from the grate, warming my nose and toes.

  “You followed me.”

  He nods, rising from his low crouch before the fire. “You knew I would.”

  That’s true. I did.

  “I can’t keep watching you suffer like this,” he says, dropping down beside my bed. “I know something is bothering you. Why won’t you talk to me?”

  “I’ve been…busy,” I finish lamely.

  “I’m not an idiot, Illyria. I know when I’m being shoved aside. All I want to know is why.”

  I open my mouth to answer but no words come out. I can’t tell him. Not yet. Not until I know how to make my decision.

  “Is it the Shadow? Are you getting worse?”

  I shake my head. “No. I mean, it’s not any better but I’m dealing with it.”

  He rests his elbows on his knees and buries his head in his hands. “It’s me, isn’t it?”

  “No!” I cry, pulling his hands away from his head. “No, it’s not you. You haven’t done anything wrong.”

  “Then why do I feel like I’m losing you?”

  I blink, surprised at the pain in his voice. “Losing me?”

  “Of course. Haven’t you figured out by now that I’m crazy about you?”

  I swallow roughly, fighting to still the rapid thumping of my heart. “You are?”

  “God, you can do be dense sometimes!” He pulls me down onto the floor with him. My feet become tangled in the covers and I spill into his lap. I struggle to push myself upright but he grins and pulls me closer.

  “Do you want to know how I feel about you?” He murmurs as his hands wrap around my back.

  Without waiting for a response, Bastien leans in and gently cups my face. A jolt of energy lances through me, making the ends of my hair rise off my sh
oulders. His eyes darken and smolder as he stares at me.

  “Please,” he whispers.

  My entire world grinds to a halt at that one desperate plea. I shove all thoughts of my destiny away and crush my lips against his, clawing at his back. His muscles ripple as I sink down squarely on his lap, deepening the kiss until we are forced to break for air.

  We pant in unison as I feel heat crashing against my heart, like the waves of the ocean, but this time it is different. The Shadow is nowhere to be found within the recesses of my mind. I am the one in control. This is my power.

  The floorboards begin to quake, rattling against the nails that hold them down. The outer door bangs against the frame, fighting to be released from its lock. The table and chairs in the center of the room stutter across the floor, threatening to topple the candle.

  I open my eyes to find our shadows dancing in the flickering light. I watch my shadow as I arch back and let Bastien’s kisses dip down from the hollow of my neck to the neckline of my shirt. My skin is alive, my mind humming.

  I grip his shoulder and pull upright, staring deep into his eyes as I fight for breath. He grins and places his hands against my waist. “If you wanted to rearrange the room, all you had to do was ask.”

  I laugh and drop my head onto his shoulders, flushing as I realize how intimately close we are pressed together. Easing myself off him, I pull my covers around me and sink onto the floor a foot away from him.

  The intensity of his stare makes me self-conscious as I burrow into the covers. “Why do you look at me like that?”

  “Does it bother you?”

  “A little,” I admit.

  He grabs onto my cot and pushes up to his feet. “You’re leaving?”

  He tosses a mischievous grin back over his shoulder. “I thought you’d probably like to be alone for a while. You know, to gather your wits about you.”

  “But I…do you have any idea what you just did to me?” I exclaim, feeling my heart stutter as he kneels before me.

  “I do, but only because you did the same to me. That’s never happened before,” he whispers. I can feel warmth spreading through my belly and know that I’m about to fling myself into his arms again. “You felt it, didn’t you?”

  I nod, completely speechless.

  “Good. Don’t forget it.”

  “Are you insane? How could I possibly forget that?”

  Bastien places a single finger across my lips to silence me. I nearly groan with desire. “You may be too blind to see it, but I’m not the only one here that’s in love with you.”

  His statement lingers in the air as he rises and strides out through the door. I sit, staring blankly at the door. Did he just say he loved me?

  That single slip has changed everything. I know that I can never just be friends with Bastien again. He has pushed me across a line that I never dreamed could exist with him and now there is no going back. I want more. Much more.

  I climb back into bed and snuggle under my covers, knowing that sleep won’t be coming any time soon. I roll onto my side and pretend to be asleep when my friends return. I listen to their banter, all the while waiting for Bastien to return.

  Long after my friends settle in for the night, I hear the rope latch shift. The door opens and closes, sealing out the frigid winds. Eamon mutters in his sleep and turns over. Zahra’s snoring falters for a moment and then picks up it’s annoying rhythm.

  I listen as Bastien prepares for bed, waiting for the creak of his cot as he sinks under the covers. Minutes pass into what feels like an hour before I let myself roll over to look at him across the room. My stomach rises into my throat when I realize he is staring back at me in the fading glow of the fire embers.

  A shot of cold races in to steal away the warmth from my cotton nest. I groan and try to pull the covers back over my face without opening my eyes.

  “Not gonna happen.”

  I groan and open my eyes to see Eamon grinning down at me. “Go away,” I grumble and roll back over. “It can’t be morning yet.”

  “Actually, it’s lunch time.”

  I shoot upright in bed and blink against the blinding sunlight pouring through the window. I ruffle my hair, wincing at the tangles. “I can’t believe you let me over sleep. What about weapons training? Kyan said it was mandatory.”

  “It was…for everyone who’s not already a weapon.” He winks.

  “Oh gee, thanks!”

  “I tried to wake you three times. You nearly gave me a black eye a few minutes ago. What’s with you? You went to bed hours before everyone else. Think you’re coming down with something?”

  I shrug indifferently as I sniff the air. “Breakfast?”

  “Well if you really want wolf stew for breakfast, then be my guest.”

  I wrinkle my nose with disgust. “I hate wolf.”

  “And you are the biggest whiner I know. Now get dressed and eat up. Kyan is waiting.”

  I frown as I untangle from my covers. “Why do you think he wants to meet us out in the woods? Why can’t he say whatever he needs to say here?”

  “Who knows? He obviously thinks it’s for the best,” he calls as I dip behind a small wooden screen to wriggle out of my clothes. I pull on a black top and cammo pants. A part of me still feels uncomfortable wearing Caldonian garb but, considering my clothes were left in tatters after the cave in, I don’t have much of a choice.

  I twist my hair into a messy bun and try not to think about Bastien when I shove two sticks through it to hold it in place. “So where is everyone?”

  “They are in the woods waiting for us. Hence why you need to get out here and scarf down this wolf.”

  I hear the clatter of wood against metal and realize Eamon is stirring the wolf slop that I’m supposed to eat. “He’s insane if he thinks I’m touching that crap.” I pinch my cheeks for color, trying desperately to look more awake than I really am.

  “I heard that!” he calls.

  “You were supposed to,” I say as he taps his fingers against the table. I suck in a shaky breath, willing myself to be silent as I slide down the wall. Tears slip past my closed eyes, streaming over the curve of my cheeks. As soon as I swipe them away, more spill free.

  This feels too weird. Eamon is taking this whole “destined to be together” thing a bit too well. Breakfast with Eamon used to be fun, but this…this feels weird, almost like he’s going out of his way to care for me now. The possession in these actions makes me bury my head in my hands.

  I’m not sure I’m strong enough to walk away from Bastien, not without giving us a chance to see if we would be worth fighting for. And what about Eamon? I have no idea how to accept his advances without crushing Bastien, or myself, in the process.

  I don’t even know how to go about wanting to kiss the guy whom I’ve only ever seen as my best friend. It’s just…weird.

  Silently, I allow myself to grieve the relationship that I know I’ll never be allowed to share with Bastien, if I choose Eamon. It’s not fair that my life should collide with Bastien’s, just to be thrown back out of orbit so quickly.

  I pull myself to my feet and splash frigid water on my face. I hold onto the small wash table, willing my fingers to stop trembling. I look up into small mirror that leans against the wooden screen and notice the purplish tint under my eyes. My skin is paler than normal, making me look worn and exhausted. I plaster on a smile and study my profile, realizing that even if Eamon buys it, I can’t do anything to hide the dullness in my eyes.

  I guess it could be worse. At least I care for Eamon. My silent pep talk doesn’t make my smile look any less forced. I give up and let my cheeks sag. Whoever designed my life must really get a kick out of watching me suffer.

  I take a deep breath and smooth out the wrinkles in my shirt before stepping out from behind the blind.

  “Wow, you sure clean up nice,” Eamon whistles. I eye the spread he’s
created at the table and stuff down my sigh. I lift the spoon and watch as the thick soup plops back into the bowl.

  “This looks really disgusting.” I push the bowl aside and return Eamon’s disapproving glare head on. “It’s not going to happen, Eamon so don’t argue with me. I’ll just wait for dinner.”

  “Fine,” he snaps, losing his cool.

  “What is with you?”

  “I’m just…I’m trying to make you happy, ok?”

  I blink, stunned by the pain behind his words. “Eamon, I…”

  He holds up his hands. “No, please don’t. I know this isn’t what you wanted. It never was, was it?”

  I swallow, wracking my brain for an answer. My lengthy delay draws a heavy sigh from Eamon. “I see the way you look at him. You think I don’t, but I see more than you know.”

  I want to tell him that he’s wrong, but I can’t bring myself to deny it. Not to him. He deserves the truth. I owe him that.

  “I’m sorry,” I whisper. My voice sounds strangled as I clear my throat. “I never meant for it to happen.”

  “I know.” Eamon blows out a breath as he runs his hands through his curls. The gesture is so familiar it hurts. “So where do we go from here?”

  “I have no clue,” I laugh weakly. “I kinda feel like we’re at that awkward courting phase that I love to hate.”

  “Yeah,” he chuckles. “I was never too good with those either.”

  “I remember.”

  He looks up at me and smiles, the first real hint of my best friend I’ve seen in over a week. “Hey, this is us we’re talking about. We’re best friends. It’s not like you have to hide your snoring or weird jokes from me.”

  I punch him on the arm. “I don’t snore.”

  “Says you.”

  I smile and scoot closer to him on the bench. “I know this is really weird, but we can get through this, right?”

  He twines his fingers with mine and tosses me a lopsided grin. “Yeah, we can do this. We’ve known each other since we were toddlers so this should come naturally.”

  “I need time, Eamon. This is all happening so fast for me.”

  He leans in and bumps my shoulder, dipping his head to smile at me. “I’ll do my best not to push you.”

  “Thanks,” I smile and shove him back. “Just because we’re destined and all doesn’t mean you’re allowed to start groping me though.”

  “Noted.” A hint of red touches Eamon’s ears. “You know you have to talk to Bastien, right? He has a right to know what’s going on.”

  All hint of playfulness vanishes. “He’s not going to take it well.”

  Eamon pulls me close, resting his head atop mine. “You brought a mountain down on top of you because you thought he was dead, Illyria. I know you’re going to be hurting too.”

  “I’ll deal.” I shrug.

  He shakes his head and rises, leaving the full bowl of wolf stew forgotten in the center of the table. “Always the hero.”

  “Someone has to be,” I mutter and follow his lead out the door.

 
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