Burning Skies Page 56

A tear slid over the bridge of her nose. When had she started to cry? Only then did she understand that though she could intellectualize her situation, her heart knew she was in serious trouble.

She drew a deep breath and sat up.

Reflection time was over. She had to face the day. She had work to do, and it would include figuring out how to do a split-self so that she could engage in darkening work. In fact, with her ability to be in the darkening she might just be of some real use in the war effort. How happy that would make her, to have one more tool by which she could honor Eric’s death.

A light knock sounded on the door. She dragged the sheet up around her bare breasts and covered her hips. “Who is it?”

“Just me,” Marcus said.

She smiled, surprised that he would knock. “Come in.”

He opened the door and stepped inside. He wore what she’d come to think of as his casual uniform, a short-sleeved silk shirt, this time in navy, and cotton slacks with a perfect break in the cuff. He also wore a variety of casual but expensive loafers, this time in dark brown leather. His hair was damp and combed behind his ears. He looked fantastic and, oh, damn, her heart swelled at the sight of him. His gaze slid over her face, her hair, her shoulders and her arm pressed beneath her breasts to keep the sheet in place. His eyes flared. She glanced down. Oh. She wasn’t exactly covered.

When a wave of fennel washed over her, like licorice and grasses and summery scents, she closed her eyes and swayed even though she was sitting on the bed.

She expected him to slam the door shut and throw himself on her. Instead, he stayed put. Did he know she wouldn’t have turned him away?

She opened her eyes and glanced at him. She lifted her brows, a silent question.

“Bad news,” he said. “Endelle wants to work with you this morning.”

Havily’s first reaction was simple. “I can’t. I have final meetings with my team leaders today and then the Reception this evening. I don’t have time.”

“Endelle rescheduled for you. She says this is more important.”

Havily swallowed hard. Great. Then she noticed that Marcus’s eyebrows were low on his forehead and he still hadn’t advanced into the room. “There’s more, isn’t there?” she asked.

“Shall I tell you straight-out?”

Oh, God, what? “Yes.”

“Only this—I feel it as well, this pressing need for you to figure out how to do the whole weird splitting-self skill. I’m afraid I’m with Endelle today. Your safety is at stake.”

“You’re really serious.”

He nodded.

What a great way to start the day.

As though he’d read her mind, he smiled. “I do have some good news. Parisa is making frittatas for breakfast.”

She wanted to smile in return but she couldn’t. She looked away from him, her gaze drifting to the lace curtains and the blue sky beyond. Well, she had wanted to be of real use to the war effort, but she wasn’t exactly happy about having to endure Endelle’s bucking-bronc style of tutoring again. Her head ached just thinking about it.

She glanced back at him. “I’ll take a quick shower then join you in the kitchen.”

When another wave of fennel pushed over her, when he growled but left the room, she knew she wasn’t the only one making sacrifices this morning.

She showered then donned a gray silk dress and water-marked gray silk scarf. She wore heels. In gray. She felt gray as she ate her frittata then headed with Marcus and Parisa over to the admin building.

But when she saw Endelle, she felt even worse. The woman wore a black leather bustier, of all things, as well as a black-and-white-striped skirt made of some kind of animal fur. Havily so didn’t want to know where the fur came from.


By the end of the second hour of enduring Endelle’s strident method of teaching, Havily’s brain had turned to mush. Her Supremeness had tried every possible means of forcing her to do a split-self. She had given her new memories, she had showed her by example, she had yelled at her, she had even folded a chaise-longue into her office so that Havily could practice while reclining. But nothing seemed to work. For whatever reason, she just couldn’t make sense of the process.

By the end of the third hour, tears streamed down her face and her head was killing her.

Endelle paced and shouted, “You should be able to do this. I don’t get it. What the hell is wrong with you?”

Havily would have responded but words wouldn’t leave her lips. She wondered if she might have permanent brain damage from all the ways Endelle had invaded her mind trying to get her to understand the skill.

But it was Marcus who stepped in front of Her Supremeness and said, “Maybe it’s the goddamn teacher.”

Endelle lifted a hand, surely to strike him dead.

Havily even rose to a sitting position, her mind spinning wildly, her hands outstretched as though ready to stop the slaying, but Marcus smiled and dipped his chin.

Endelle, much to Havily’s surprise, started to laugh.

“How about we try again after lunch,” Marcus suggested.

“Fine,” Endelle barked.

Havily didn’t want lunch. She wanted to crawl under a rock. And never return. Her head ached as though someone had moved a boulder inside her head, then sat on it, was still sitting on it, was jumping up and down on it.

A soft knock on the door, then Alison entered. “Lunch is ready. Anyone hungry?” Her timing was perfect, which Havily suspected wasn’t mere happenstance.

Her gaze fell on Havily and her eyes widened. As though she always did so, she crossed the room and put a hand on Havily’s forehead. Havily gasped because it felt as though sheets of warm water spilled through her brain and eased her, eased her. The boulder disappeared along with the six-foot-five creature that had done all the jumping, thank you very much.

More tears fell, but this time with relief. She felt an arm under her elbow, Alison’s arm. “Come on. I ordered spaghetti with Italian sausage, your favorite.”

“My first meeting is at two,” Havily said as she reached the conference room. She paused on the threshold. She had intended to argue with Endelle about continuing the lessons after lunch, but she was too stunned by the state of the long executive table. There were fresh pink and white roses in a large silver vase in the center. White ceramic bowls, filled with spaghetti and the promised sausage, sat on maroon silk place mats. The smell of the sauce caused Havily’s stomach to set up a dedicated rumbling.

She took a seat next to Parisa in a chair opposite the door. Goblets containing Medichi’s Cabernet label sat above a fork and a large spoon. There were even linen napkins.

Endelle plopped down in a chair next to Marcus. She frowned at the food. “COPASS has set up Parisa’s hearing for tomorrow at one. Can you believe that shit? The same day as the Festival.”

Parisa, who had just taken a sip of wine, choked. “I have a hearing?” she cried.

Endelle rolled her eyes. “It doesn’t concern you. I mean, you have to be there, blah, blah, blah, but basically Greaves and I will square off and we’ll see who wins.” She pointed to herself. “That will be … hello … me.”

Havily glanced at Parisa and tried to catch her eye, to somehow encourage her not to take Endelle too much at her word. Instead the ascendiate set her goblet down and put her hands in her lap.

Havily glanced at Endelle. She wanted to kick some sense into the administrator. The woman had no idea how her flippant, scornful, way-too-casual remarks could be interpreted. On the other hand, assuming Parisa chose to align herself with Endelle, the mortal-with-wings probably needed to get used to Her Supremeness.

Havily used her fork and swirled the spaghetti against her spoon.

“So Greaves will be there?” Marcus asked. “Somehow I thought he played an invisible role here in the Valley.”

Endelle, sitting to the left of Marcus, shoved the empty chair next to her away, leaned back, and angled her legs up onto the table, crossing them at the ankles. The heels of her stilettos looked like a pair of daggers. Havily shook her head. The black-and-white-striped fur had a faint musky odor and slid up her thighs. That and her black leather bustier just didn’t add up to “Supreme High Administrator.”

She shrugged at Marcus’s question then folded a bottle of Dos Equis into her hand, apparently uninterested in the wine. She flicked the lid off with the tip of her finger, which created a spark, then drank deep. Afterward, she belched. What a fine example of womanhood. “Oh, the bastard shows up when it suits him and COPASS suits him.” She turned to Alison, who sat on the other side of Marcus. “I’ll want you to do some empathic surveillance work, take the temperature of the room, see how many more of these freaks he’s turned.”

Parisa once more picked up her wine. She still hadn’t touched her spaghetti. She’d grown very quiet.

Endelle glanced at her then said, “Just so ya know, I have the worst manners on the planet. I have no subtlety and I hope you can get used to it. Thorne said he’s sure I’ve had a couple of strokes given how old I am, which has inhibited normal social screening. I told him to go fuck himself.”

Parisa stared at her for a long moment. “We had a part-time librarian with your attitude. I fired her sorry ass the second day after I got promoted.”

Endelle lifted her brows, her lips parted. She chuckled. “Well, then let’s hope you don’t get promoted over me.” She took a long swallow of beer then released a sigh and another belch, only this time she politely covered her mouth with her hand. “You’ll need to be tough in this world, ascendiate. Just remember that. Ascension ain’t for sissies.”

“No shit,” Alison murmured.

Havily’s gaze shot to her then she laughed. Alison so rarely made use of profanity that when she did, it was always funny because it was always unexpected. Marcus smiled as well.

Endelle pursed her lips. “I know this hasn’t been a barrel of laughs for you, Parisa, but I want you to know that I’ve decided to assign Medichi as your Guardian of Ascension until we can make you safe here. In the meantime, I want you to stay at his villa. We’ll let him sleep the rest of the day; then he’s to stick close to you until you’ve completed your rite of ascension. You do know about all this shit, right?”

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