Afterlife Page 46

“Maybe.” That was encouraging. I brightened despite myself. “It’s possible.”

“Even if Balthazar doesn’t know how to push Charity back, Mrs. Bethany probably does. Cotta be something, right?”

“Right,” I said absently. Suddenly Charity didn’t seem like the only problem we had to deal with.

Lucas wanted to trust Mrs. Bethany. He wanted to share his deepest fears with her, and to turn to her for help. She might be able to save him when I couldn’t. And in that moment, I couldn’t blame him for not caring about the traps she’d laid.

It seemed to me as though everyone and everything — Charity, Mrs. Bethany, and his own blood hunger — was fighting me for Lucas’s soul.

The next morning, I returned to the fencing room. Although the class had ended for the day, the room Wasn’t empty. Balthazar stood in his fencing whites, mask pushed atop his head as he wiped sweat from his brow. After the others in the class had fmished, he’d stayed behind to practice his 12E technique — to fight invisible opponents that existed only in his mind.

I remembered that he often did that when he was stressed out; last night had been as rough for him as for me.

Slowly I took shape in the far corner of the room, giving him plenty of time to leave if he d idn’t want to talk. He stayed. Within a few seconds we were face — to — face again, though the whole broad expanse of the wooden floor lay between us.

“Hey,” I began. Lame, but maybe it was better to keep it simple at first.

“Hello.” Balthazar tested the weight of his blade In one hand, then the other, like the saber was new ro him Instead of an old friend. ‘Here to practice?”

“I never was any good at fencing.”

“You learned a lot. Don’t knock yourself.”

He could be kind to me, even now. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you last night. I shouldn ‘t have yelled at you about what happened to Lucas,. not ever.”

Balthazar took a halfhearted stab at a nearby dummy. The steel curved into a thin arc under pressure. “I shouldn’t have gone off on you like that. You were injured, and clearly you were upset.”

“You didn’t say anything that didn’t need to be said.”

“But I could’ve picked a better way to say it.” He slipped the mask off his head and tucked it under one arm as he walked closer to me. The fencing whites had always been a good look for Balthazar, and I remembered for a moment what it had felt like to be so close to him.

I could never regret choosing Lucas, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t aware of what I’d lost when I chose.

As though he could read my thoughts, Balthazar smiled. “Friends again?”

“Yes, please.” I wanted to hug him, but that was probably a bad idea.

“Actually, most of the time, when you’re not upset, you’re very good about listening.”

Just as I was about to simply say thanks — and be relieved, since his words last night about me not shutting up had stung — I realized he might be giving me an opening. “Do I need to listen now?”

“Charity.” The name fell between us like a stone. “You were right when you said I was in denial about her. You’ve always been right about that.

And on some level, I’ve always known.”

Already I could feel anger pricking its way back into my consciousness, but this time I forced myself to remember that it was Charity I was angry at, not Balthazar. “She’s your sister.” The words came out calm and steady, for which I was grateful. “You love her. How could you help it?”

“That’s no excuse for letting her run wild. Letting her hurt people. Or not making myself think about what she might be doing to Lucas, and to you.”

“He didn’t tell you about it, though.” Lucas shared his feelings so openly with me that I’d had to stop and realize that he wasn’t as free with everyone else; even with the greater trust and liking between them now, Lucas would never have thought to talk to Balthazar about his bad dreams. “And you said Charity’s weakening herself to do this. I wouldn’t have expected that either.”

“I’ve heard him tossing and turning in his sleep for a month now, and I never put it together. That was criminally stupid, and worth yelling at me about.”

“I’m done yelling at you, okay? Forever.” Guilt slumped his shoulders and darkened his eyes, so I stepped closer and gently laid a hand on his arm. “You said yourself, invading people’s dreams like that — it’s rare.”

Balthazar nodded. “I’ve never done it. Never had it done to me. Charity must be sleeping almost all the time, because it would be exhausting for her. On the other hand, since she’s asleep, that means she gets to be there every single time Lucas dreams. Damn it.”

Only one thing mattered. “Is there a way to protect Lucas against it? Against her?”

“Not that I know of. But let me think about it.” He studied my face for a few moments. “Some of what you and Lucas said last night, and that burn on your leg — it sounded like Charity goes after you in the dreams, too.”

I nodded. “But she can’t manipulate me as much as she does Lucas. I guess that’s because it’s his dream, and I’m just visiting.”

“Be careful, Bianca.” Balthazar’s voice was unexpectedly firm. “It’s Lucas’s dream, and that probably does mean Charity has more influence over his mind. But when You’re in the dreams — that’s all of you, not just your subconscious. That’s how you got burned last night. I don’t know 127 how much worse you could get injured, but you shouldn’t find out.”

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