Age of Darkness Sample

The War of Ages Saga, Book 1: Age of Darkness

Olan hunched behind the oak, careful to stay hidden within its shadow. Other kids poked fun at him for being so small, but he rather liked his size. He could hide easier, and the adults never seemed to notice him at the village gatherings. Which was fine by him, because they always seemed to pick the other kids to do the chores, leaving Olan to adventure.

Today he was a king’s scout, sent deep into enemy territory to check upon his Majesty’s most trusted and loyal servant.

The oak creaked in protest as the wind pulled at its branches.

“It’s okay,” Olan said, patting the trunk. “The wind just wants to play.”

Olan gave the tree a satisfied nod after it quieted, then returned his attention to his mission—reaching the sick house without being detected. Not by anyone, but especially not by the adults. He checked his equipment. His sword, a stick he’d found outside his father’s forge, poked through his belt; his money pouch, full of “coins”—shiny and colorful rocks he liked to collect no matter how many times his mom rolled her eyes—dangled at the other side of his waist; slung over his back, the water skin his mom had made for him sloshed with every movement.

Olan pursed his lips, frustrated at her for forcing him to bring the skin. He’d explained his adventure to her, and how noisy the skin would be, but she didn’t care. She always told him he needed to bring his water, even if he was just going to see if Arygan could play. Now he was on the most important mission of his life, and the stupid thing wouldn’t stay quiet. Olan jabbed at the skin with his elbow, then thought better, unstoppered it and pulled a long drag. It wouldn’t slosh if there wasn’t any water.

Breathless from a long chug, he shook his water skin to see how much he’d drank. About half was still left. But that was ok. Half the water meant half the noise. Besides, he wanted to save the rest for the trek home in case he got thirsty.

Staying out of sight in the village was easy with all the trees and houses to hide behind. But once he got to the field passed the tree line, hiding would be impossible.

“Impossible for anyone but a master hider,” Olan whispered to himself.

His next hide was a pine on the other side of the road. The only one that ran through Headwater, though it only led from the dam, through the village square, and eventually to far away farms like the Davinin’s and Loyalton’s. But Olan’s mom never let him go that far. Beyond that was the unknown. Arygan’s dad had told him the road led to a hidden graveyard where dead roamed, hungry for young flesh. Olan didn’t believe him at first, but Arygan said he’d been there and had even shown him the finger bone he took from the skeleton that tried to grab him. Olan still didn’t believe him, but he was glad the sick house was on this side of the village. Better to be safe than sorry.

He stole a quick glance back at Headwater, surprised by the activity. The village usually slept after lunch, but now it seemed everyone was busy with some chore. A sly smile took Olan’s face. They must have been tipped off about his mission from another spy! No matter. He hadn’t become the most famous scout in all the Five Kingdoms because he was bad at sneaking. Even the emperor had called on him a few times.

The sun had slipped well past its peak. Olan’s mom would be expecting him sooner than later. With one last brief glance into town, Olan darted across the road, pumping his legs. His foot caught a rock and he stumbled to the ground, kicking up dust and scraping his hand. His cover was sure to be blown. But he couldn’t turn back. Not now.

Olan ignored the pain in his hand—mom would fix it when he got home—and picked himself up off the ground. A few of the adults were pointing his way. Probably calling for archers.

Olan’s hand slapped against the pine, drawing a pained yelp as he grabbed onto the trunk to help him stop. He looked back to the village, then yelped as a finger jabbed him in the rib. He spun and saw Livia, smiling down at him. She looked pretty in her blue dress. It looked new, and her hair looked extra shiny, like waves of honey. “Hey—”

She put a finger to her lips, looked about, then crouched beside him and whispered, “What mission are you about, My Lord?”

Olan’s lips pulled into a wide grin, and he giggled when Livia poked at his ribs again. “I’m deep in enemy lands,” he said, gesturing to the village, “trying to find the king’s most loyal subject, Mister E.”

“Mister…E?” Livia said, her brow rising with curiosity.

Olan giggled and nodded. Livia wasn’t one of the bad guys, he realized. She was…his assistant! Olan leaned close to whisper. “The king sent me to find E’s whereabouts, so he can send a special rescue team of boorde assassins—”

“Boorde assassins!” Livia gasped with mock surprise. She looked around to make sure no one had heard her.

Olan bubbled with enthusiasm. “Yup. And Headwater is a secret base for the Crimson Guard!”

Livia’s pressed her hands to her cheeks. “I knew it all along.”

“You did?” Olan said. “I mean, of course you did. The king sent you here to help me.”

Livia pulled a suspicious glance. “And I know right where they’re holding your subject.”

“Me too!” Olan said.

“Well…” Livia paused to think. “I know the best path to get there. The one with no traps.”

“It’s okay,” he told her. “I’m the king’s best scout, and scouts can see traps from a mile away.”

“Even traps from the Crimson Guard?”

“Yup,” Olan said with a strong nod. “Especially those ones.”

Livia stood up and ruffled his hair. He didn’t mind when she did it. “It seems you have it all under control,” she said. “I’m on my way there right now if you want to walk with me.”

Olan started to agree but held his tongue. What if Livia had been captured and they turned her into a bad guy? What if she was tricking him into walking with her?

“That’s okay,” he said. “You go on ahead so you can make sure the path is clear. Of traps. Like you said. There are usually two guards at the sick house, so be careful.”

“You mean Jouler and Pendric?” Livia asked, then shook her head. “I mean, the Crimson Guard’s deadliest blademasters?”

Olan’s eyes were wide. Of course, they would use their best against him.

“Then I’ll be extra careful,” Livia promised.

She’s definitely one of them, Olan thought, brimming with excitement. This was definitely one of his top adventures.

Livia ruffled his curly brown hair again, then made her way toward the sick house.

The small building stood in the middle of a wide field, not too far off the road. Olan waited until Livia was out of sight before he started on his way. There wasn’t much cover, so he had to crouch low in the tall grass. He moved slow, so as not to draw attention in case Jouler and Pendric were on guard. But not so slow that he would be late for dinner. Olan reached for his sword, but all that was left of the stick was the handle part, poking up from his belt. It must have snapped during his fall. But he wasn’t helpless. He would just have to use his secret powers.

A tiny movement caught his eye. Squirming in the middle of the trail was a fuzzy black caterpillar with orange lines running down its side.

“It’s okay, little friend,” Olan said, picking it up and letting it wriggle in his hand. It looked like it was trying to cross the trail, so Olan decided to set it down where it wouldn’t be squished. But not before giving it a name, of course. He named all the little critters he found—Lilly the hummingbird, Naggy the snake, and Jasper the lizard were a few.

This guy…his name was…

“Squishy,” Olan pronounced, then set the caterpillar down with gentle care.

Olan continued down the trail, stopping once the sick house was in view. It was more like a large shack than a house. Moss and lichen patched the building. The wood siding had long since grayed and warped, and the thatch seemed more of a garden for weeds and wildflowers. A lone orange tree, filled with plump fruit, was the shack’s only company.

Arygan said that his father told him it was the first house built in Headwater. Olan didn’t know if that was true, Arygan was always making up stories. But Olan had to admit, the sick house looked older than the rest of the village.

As he suspected, Jouler and Pendric were standing guard outside. They were the same age as Livia and would be adults in a couple years, but that never stopped them from playing along with Olan. Jouler sat against the lone tree, enjoying an orange, while Pendric wielded a solid-looking stick, slashing and stabbing at one of the low hanging branches. Olan decided the stick was actually Sigbjorn, the emperor’s own blade, forged by the gods. It was no wonder Pendric was given such a fine weapon when faced with such a powerful foe as Olan. He envisioned a glorious battle in his head, acting out his own slices and jabs. He giggled and shook with glee.

Jouler looked in his direction, and Olan dropped to the ground with a squeak. Maybe they hadn’t seen him. Olan rolled to his side, to get off the trail, then scooted closer to the sick house. He would have to surprise them.

“I know, I know,” Pendric was saying as they walked down the trail toward Olan. “I just mean it’ll be nice for everything to get back to normal.”

“You know he’s not going anywhere,” Jouler said, and when Pendric didn’t respond he stopped him. “You know that, right?”

Pendric rolled his head, grumbling. “But maybe not.”

Jouler rubbed his face, then took a deep breath, then motioned Pendric to follow him down the path.

Olan jumped up with a battle cry and pushed his palms out toward Pendric, making a sound like a roaring jet.

“Ah!” Pendric cried, dropping his stick as he fell to the ground and flailed in mock pain. “Aaaah, it’s so hot! I’m burning!”

“Pen!” Jouler rushed to his companion’s side, suppressing a laugh as Pendric released his dying breath. Jouler pointed at Olan. “I’ll destroy you for this, Olan the…”

“The most famous scout in the kingdom,” Olan whispered, taking the opportunity to snag Pendric’s stick.

Jouler covered his mouth to hide his smile, then cleared his throat and grimaced at Olan. “I’ll destroy you for this, Olan the most famous scout in the kingdom!”

“You’ll never stop me!” Olan shouted, lunging at Jouler.

Jouler gasped as he caught the stick between his side and his arm. “Stabbed!” he snarled through clenched teeth. “You’re too…” Jouler fell to his knees. “You’re too quick.” He gasped, then slumped to the ground with an exaggerated sigh.

“You were fools to think you could defeat me!” Olan said, pointing Sigbjorn to the sky.

Jouler and Pendric rose to their feet, sharing a warm laugh with Olan. “Can I have my sword back?” Pendric asked.

Olan feigned consideration, tapping a finger to his chin. “I don’t know…should I, Jouler?”

Jouler stroked his jaw. “I think if you do, he’s just going to stab you once you turn your back.”

“Oh, come on,” Pendric said, reaching his hand out. “Can I have my stick back, please?”

“Haha, I’m just kidding,” Olan said. “I wasn’t going to keep it.”

Pendric grabbed his stick and rustled Olan’s hair.

Why did everyone do that to him? He liked his curly hair just fine, but apparently not as much as everyone else. He waved to Jouler and Pendric as they trotted back to the village. Probably to inform the rest of the villagers that they’d seen the king’s scout.

He shouldn’t have let them go.

The sick house was close enough to hit with a rock now. Not that Olan would, no matter how tempting the open shutters were. He was careful to approach from a side with no windows. Reylan had taught him that after a failed attempt to spy on the old sage.

A cry sounded from inside the sick house, followed by whimpers, pants, and groans. Livia must be changing his bandages.

Olan’s heart grew heavy and his chest felt tight. Reylan said it was necessary, but Olan knew that wasn’t true. He’d seen Reylan fix plenty of people. Broken bones, cuts, scrapes, fevers… He shaped them all, right as a river. Just because the newcomer was a citizen didn’t mean he was bad, even if everyone in Headwater thought so. He was always nice to Olan, and didn’t even rustle his hair, said his little brother hated it too. Besides, Reylan was the one that brought Kael here to heal in the first place.

Olan heard more gasping and groaning. He’d never seen a wound like Kael’s, like his belly had shattered. Olan remembered how bad it hurt when he sliced his arm on a knife, never mind being stabbed by a Headless. Whatever that was.

Kael screamed.

Tears blurred Olan’s vision and he clenched his jaw to keep from screaming. It wasn’t fair. Reylan should just heal him.

Crossing the short distance to the sick house seemed to take an eternity. He wiped his eyes, telling himself that he needed to be strong like Kael.

“You’re the king’s best scout,” Olan reminded himself, taking a slow, deep breath. The words felt empty. He didn’t much feel like adventuring anymore. He still wanted to see Kael, but he also didn’t want to disturb him by making too much noise. The window was right around the corner. He would just take a quick peek, to make sure Kael was okay, and then head back home.

The window was still too high for Olan to see through without having to pull himself up. He’d hoped that he would have grown enough since Kael’s arrival, but even after a full cycle of the moon the window didn’t seem any closer.

“It’s getting better,” Kael told Livia. “At least I’m not passing out from the last peel anymore.”

“True,” Livia said. “But you don’t have to be such a baby about it.”

“Baby?” Kael said, offering a snicker that ended in a grunt of pain.

“I’m sorry,” Livia said, her voice thick with concern. “Here, drink this.”

Olan pulled himself up to see into Kael’s room. Everything looked just how he’d left it—Kael’s bed pushed up under the window on the other wall from Olan, a nightstand with a cold oil lamp, a small desk with a stack of papers that looked recently shuffled, and a slate-board with notes in chalk. Olan couldn’t read yet, but he could tell Reylan’s handwriting. It was worse than his father’s, especially when he was excited, or in a hurry.

Livia was holding a cup of medicine to Kael’s lips. He finished the concoction and laid back in his bed. His bare chest exposed the wicked network of scars, spreading outward from Kael’s wound. It looked as though the Headless’ weapon had shattered his stomach. Still, Kael looked much better than when he was brought to Headwater. No one believed he would make it through the night.

Except for me, Olan thought, beaming to himself.

He’d never doubted Kael for an instant, and he’d been right about him the whole time. Kael was getting better by the day, and now he could even get out of bed. He cried a lot when he walked and whenever anyone tried to help him, he waved them away, even when he fell to the ground. A couple days ago he even made it to the front door. Reylan and Livia had been more furious at him that Olan’s mom had been when he’d broken her favorite mug that his dad had made for her.

Olan dropped to the ground, careful not to peek for too long lest he get caught. Kael always seemed to catch him no matter how sneaky he was. But that was because Kael had special powers, just like Olan’s mother and father. But Kael was much stronger. Probably even stronger than Reylan. Olan didn’t know how he could tell. He just could. Maybe it was because Kael was his best friend.

“I can already feel the ha’ath tea,” Kael said. “Did you make it stronger this time?”

“I made it how I always make it,” Livia replied. “But this,” she said, sounding all sweet, like when Olan’s mom wanted something from his dad. “This I made extra special.”

Olan pulled himself up again.

Livia was working salve onto Kael’s scar. It seemed to soothe his pain because Kael sank into his bed with a sigh. She was gentle and hummed as she worked. Sometimes they looked at each other for a long time, just staring at each other without saying anything. Olan didn’t understand why older people did that. It’s not like they could read each other’s mind.

Kael gasped.

“Sorry!” Livia said, sucking air through clenched teeth. She examined a particular part of the scar, then pressed it ever so slowly until Kael grunted. Livia winced. “Reylan will want to see this.”

“It’s just tender,” Kael said, pushing away her probing hand.

“Don’t tell me it’s just tender,” she said. “It might be infected, in which case—”

“In which case you’ll have to reopen it and clean it,” Kael said, quiet fear resting on his voice.

Livia stiffened, though her eyes glistened with concern, and something more…  She was always staring at him when she thought he couldn’t see, and Olan had never seen her wear so many pretty dresses. “We’ll keep an eye on the area,” she told Kael, “and check it in the morning.”

Olan hated seeing Kael in so much pain, but his mom said he had to go through it; said Olan would understand when he was older, which he thought was hogwash. He understood things perfectly well, even if he was only seven. Like the fact that Kael could have already been healed by now, but the adults just wouldn’t do it. They all hated him, and for no good reason. Not like old man Biggard. He was…well, he was old and crotchety, and no one really liked him anyway.

Kael moaned again, this time with pleasure as Livia’s hands massaged his legs and arms. She wore a peculiar smile that Olan had never seen on her, and she bit her lip whenever she rubbed his thighs. She was probably getting Kael ready to walk more, which was a good sign. Olan thought to ask his mom to rub his legs because it looked like it felt really good, but he figured he didn’t need it because he already walked well enough. Maybe his mom could help Livia, so Kael would get better faster. He was taking forever to heal, and there was so much to show him. Like lemon cakes, and cinnamon loaves, and secret places that only Olan knew about…and Jouler and Pendric. But they were always scouting about, finding new secret spots. Besides, they were older so they didn’t have boundaries and could go as far as they wanted. Olan had even heard that Jouler had a secret fort, past his dad’s farm, on the border of the unknown. Olan would build a fort even farther when he was as old as Jouler. Past the unknown. Maybe Kael would help him build it.

Olan had gotten lost in his dreaming again. Livia and Kael were staring right at him. Kael wore his genuine smile. He was always glad to see Olan.

“Hi Kael,” Olan squeaked, dropping to the ground and running back to the trail. He heard Kael call after him, but Olan was already skittering across the field. There was no looking back now, he had to give his report to the king straight away.

“Your most loyal subject has been found, and he is doing well,” Olan said, imagining himself before the king. He slowed to a walk, a mischievous grin creeping up his lips. “Kael will be up and well soon, Your Majesty, but he’s in great danger now, captured by none other than your worst rival.” Olan giggled with excitement at his newest adventure, forming in his head.

A dark, curled shape in the path caught his eye. “Squishy!” he exclaimed. “Why’d you get back on the trail?” He’d just have to take his new pet home and give him a good, safe place to live and feed him yummy caterpillar food. Whatever that was. He’d ask his mom. She knew everything.

“It’s just too dangerous for you,” Olan told the caterpillar. “You… Squishy? Are you okay?”

Olan froze mid-step when he saw the caterpillar’s crushed form, unmoving on the ground. His heart yanked in his chest and his lip began to tremble. “No! Why?” Olan’s vision blurred as he stooped down and cradled caterpillar in his hands. “Please don’t be dead…please, Squishy, please, please!”

It was all his fault. He shouldn’t have named him Squishy. That’s what got him stepped on. He should have named him Squirmy, or Fuzzy, or…or anything but Squishy.

“I’m so sorry,” he told the caterpillar, his body shaking as he sobbed.

# # #

Kael breathed a sigh of relief when Livia removed the final length of bandage. The pain had been excruciating, though considerably less with each passing day.

“I hate changing your bandages,” Livia said, brushing his hair back. Dark eyes gleamed with intelligence and her honey-colored locks cascaded halfway down her back.

Empire be damned if she wasn’t beautiful, Kael thought, and couldn’t be any less like the phaerians at the Citadel. Shame still lingered around his heart from how he’d treated her after he’d awoken.

“Stop it,” Livia said, taking a step back.

Kael blinked, confused.

“Don’t give me that look,” she said, crossing her arms. Talking like that to a citizen would have earned the phaerians at the Citadel a beating.

Kael loved how she was with him. “What look?”

“That look you get when you think about the past,” she said. “You need to leave it be.”

“You act like it was so long ago,” Kael said, blowing at his dirty blonde strands.

Livia brushed his hair back again. “And you act like you haven’t changed.”

Kael gestured to the wound on his belly. The scars looked as though his skin had shattered from the Headless’ blade. New pink flesh had already formed around much of the wound, but the deepest lacerations were still raw and open.

“I have no doubt. I’m a different person.”

“True,” Livia said, squinting at him. “But you don’t have to be such a baby about it.”

“Baby?” Kael’s chortle was cut short by a grunt of pain.

“I’m sorry,” Livia said, caressing his cheeks with the back of her fingers. She grabbed the cup on his nightstand and filled it with ha’ath tea. “Here, drink this.”

Reylan and Livia infused it with various fruits and flowers to hide the earthy flavor of the ha’ath, but Kael rather enjoyed it. He swallowed the medicine in a single gulp, tasting rose and orange peel, her signature ingredient.

“You’re going to choke one day,” Livia said, crossing her arms, “and I’m just going to sit here and laugh at you.”

When she reached for the cup he pulled her hand to his chest. “No you wouldn’t,” he said, holding her gaze with his.

A weary smile pulled at one side of her lips. “No, I wouldn’t. I just…” She pulled her hand away and moved to the desk, busying herself with the few pieces of parchment that Reylan had left for her. “I want to see you better,” she said over her shoulder.

“But I’m healing so quickly,” Kael said.

“I know,” Livia said, hiding something behind her back as she sauntered to Kael’s side. “Reylan taught me there’s nothing shaping can heal that the right herb or poultice can’t.”

Kael cleared his throat to hide his scoff. It was obvious to him that she and Reylan knew as much about shaping as he knew about herbs. Under the proper care of a tii’Vrath he’d have been on his feet after the first week, and fully recovered after two.

The familiar warmth of the ha’ath spread through his body with a wave of calm. “I can already feel the tea,” he said, surprised at how quickly the effects had taken him. “Did you make it stronger this time?”

“I made it how I always make it,” Livia replied. “But this,” she said, proffering the hidden jar of poultice. “This I made extra special.”

She grabbed the jar with the smelly concoction and applied it to the wound. It fizzed and popped where the wound was open, releasing more foul vapors.

Kael was surprised at how soothing the poultice felt, though he had to admit he wasn’t sure if it was the medicine of Livia’s fingers on his skin that felt so good. He felt his head sink into his pillow as he laid back into his bed with a deep sigh. She was so beautiful to him. She wasn’t like the other girls he had courted at the Citadel, and not just because she was phaerian. Livia wasn’t the prize at the end of a hunt. She was the reason boys ended the hunt to become men.

Even so, wooing her was taking much longer than Kael was used to. Of course, he’d been bedridden for…how long had it been? Three weeks? Four? The days were all starting to blend together now. Not that it mattered. Not when she was here.

Kael’s thoughts pranced down the corridors of his mind, amazed at how much he had changed, and ashamed at who he had been. How he had treated Livia, seeing her as nothing more than chattel. He’d seen them all like that: Reylan, Jouler, Pendric…Olan. That last one pained him even more than Livia. He’d been so blinded by what he believed to be true that he failed to see what was right in front of him—phaerians and citizens were the same. One just as human as the other.

His head swam and he felt as if the walls were moving.

“Are you okay?” Livia asked, placing the back of her hand to his neck. “You don’t feel too warm. You are running a bit of a fever, but that’s to be expected, considering your condition.”

Kael took slow, deep breaths. “I’m fine,” he lied.

She paused from rubbing the salve into his wound. “You don’t look fine.”

His mind swooned whenever he trudged down that corridor of his memories, recalling how he’d treated his phaerian caretakers—Reylan, Livia, Jouler, and Pendric. They’d saved his life, and he returned their kindness in typical imperial ignorance.

His first week after he’d awoken had been the worst, not only for his painful recovery but for the lies he’d been raised to believe. The Three Laws described phaerians as simpletons, glorified beasts of burden. But by the gods, no one in Headwater fit the blasted Laws. At least the handful he’d met thus far: Reylan, Livia’s parents Irene and Fernin, a fellow by the name of Tied, who looked and acted like an older version of Pendric, and a sour old man that had carried the stench of stale tabac smoke and ale. Bilford, or Baggard, or some such.

The hardest part of his recovery wasn’t from the shattered scar on his belly. That was healing a lot faster than Kael would have imagined without shaping. The hardest part was the shattered scar on his soul. That lingering guilt he couldn’t seem to shake no matter how much he reasoned it. Why had he survived over everyone else? The whole caravan, slaughtered. Tylel, Aliece…everyone. Gone.

Livia’s hands glided across his belly, careful not to press against his scar, then trailed down his side to his legs, quelling his thoughts about…

A slow moan rumbled in his chest. Whatever. It no longer mattered.

A sly smile quirked Livia’s lips and she began to hum as she massaged his thigh.

“I know how to keep your mind in the present,” she teased.

Kael’s head fell back and a soft moan escaped his lips as her fingers teased dangerously close to his loins. Desire raked him, fueled by her sweet scent of orange blossoms and jasmine. She bit her lip as her hand squeezed his thigh.

“You’re a dangerous man, Kael,” she said, suddenly pushing herself away from him.

Kael’s eyes lingered upon her form. Every soft curve and bouncing curl seduced his attention. He craved the shivers her touched aroused whenever she caressed his skin.

He rubbed his cheeks. The ha’ath tea seemed to be playing with his emotions again. Livia was beautiful to be sure, and he liked her, but the tea made him feel stronger for her in every way.

Kael saw Olan’s curly brown hair through the window, bouncing as he giggled. Kael held a laugh as he pretended not to notice Olan. On rare occasions Olan was able to sneak all the way to Kael’s door. Kael cherished those moments with Olan, the way his eyes squinted like twin crescent moons when he smiled, the sound of his giggles and the patter of his feet as he scampered away. He’d been an anchor of comfort in Kael’s maelstrom mess of a life.

As if on queue, Olan squeaked when he noticed Kael watching him. “Hi Kael,” he said, then dropped to the ground and ran away.

“Hi Olan,” Kael called after him.

“He really likes you,” Livia said.

“I know,” Kael replied.

Livia’s eyebrow raised with scornful intent. “You know?”

“I only meant it’s obvious he likes me,” Kael said.

“But that’s a good thing,” Livia said. “And it’s not like you don’t like him too.”

“Of course I do!” Kael said. “I think he’s great! He reminds me of my little brother.”

“So why the long face?”

Kael didn’t realize he’d been frowning. “I just…I don’t understand why he likes me so much.” He could tell from Livia’s furrowed brow that he wasn’t hiding his guilt well.

“Well…” Livia curled a lock of her honey-brown hair, then tugged it like she did when she maneuvered her thoughts. “Why do you like him so much?”

Kael considered the question for a moment. “Like I said, he reminds me of my little brother, and it’s endearing that he comes all this way just to see me when everyone else around here hates me.”

“Not everyone,” Livia said, offering him that special look that made his chest warm, and heart flutter.

Kael wanted to take her. To drown his senses in her warmth. Her leg brushed against his arm, and her fingers trickled across his skin with promise. Shivers trailed her touch, and he burned with passion. Her kiss, that was what he longed for. Just to feel her lips pressed against his.

She leaned forward, caressing his hair, filling him with her scent. “Some people have become rather fond of you.”

“Some people?” Kael took a deep, slow breath as she pulled away from him once more.

She raised her hands to the back of her neck, seduction dripping from her smile. “Yup,” she said, surprising Kael with her sudden jovial change.

His head slumped back into his pillow and he laughed through his burning frustration. He’d seen the same agony in her eyes, hidden behind forced mirth. He knew she liked him, and he knew she wanted him. But…how much did she like him? What was her hesitation? 

“Reylan thinks there’s something special about you,” she said, absently twisting a lock of hair as her gaze clouded behind thought.

“He said that?” Kael asked.

Livia blinked as if suddenly awoken from a daze. “He didn’t say that exactly. But why else would he go through so much trouble to save you?”

“I don’t know,” Kael said. “Because he’s a good person?”

Livia lifted her shoulder in a half shrug. “He’s a good person, yes. But you’re…well, a citizen.” She hesitated, measuring his reaction. “You have to admit, bringing a citizen, especially a shaper, is a huge risk to Headwater.”

“Well yes, but…”

Livia crossed her arms and gave him an even look. “Before your recent enlightenment, would you have been so gracious to a phaerian had you come across one dying in the middle of the road?”

Kael turned his head. Not a chance, he thought without hesitation.

“I’m sorry,” Livia said. “I only wanted to show you how much you’ve changed. For the better.”

“Is it?” Kael asked, feeling conflicted by the ignorance of his past.

He felt the softness of her fingers against his cheek, and a lump swelled in his throat. “It’s going to take time,” she said. “I know that’s not the answer you want to hear, but the pain will go away when you let it. When you learn to be comfortable with yourself.”

Kael squeezed her hand in his, drawing strength from her conviction. “Now you’re starting to sound like Reylan.”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“You should,” Kael said. “He’s a great man.”

“Interesting.” Livia’s eyebrow rose. “Those aren’t the words you would have used a few weeks ago.”

Kael scoffed, welcoming the sharp pain that stabbed through the medicine.

Livia held both of his hands in hers and demanded he look at her. “I know this is a difficult transition.”

“I’m not sure if ‘difficult’ is the word I would use when your entire paradigm is shattered, and the life you’d thought to be true wasn’t just a lie…it was nothing more than a puppet act.”

“Call it what you want,” Livia said, refusing to shy her gaze. “None of that matters to me. I know who you are now.”

The words eased Kael enough to draw a smile.

“Reylan told me you should be up and walking soon,” Livia said, casually fanning herself as though they hadn’t just exposed their soul to each other.

“Did he say when? He avoids the question every time I ask.”

 Livia gave him a stern look. “That’s because you’re always trying to do things before you’re well enough. Like shaping.”

Kael shuddered, recalling the painful torment from his failed attempt. “I just had to make sure I could still touch the currents.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Livia said. “You should have waited.”

Kael shook his head. “You don’t understand. Severe wounds can snap a shaper. Not being able to shape would be like… It would be worse than losing my sight, hearing, touch. All of my senses.”

“It must be great,” Livia said.

“It is,” Kael replied, wishing he didn’t sound so desperate.

“Well, you have to take it slow sometimes. Patience always wins in the end.”

“Not always,” he said with a wink. “I just can’t wait to get out of here.”

“So eager to be off?” Livia asked, averting her eyes.

“I…no, that’s not what I meant. I just want to walk without pain again, and see anything besides the walls of this shack.”

“But you will have to leave, won’t you?” she asked, her voice tight. She avoided looking at him, picking at a spot on her dress. “I mean, once you are well enough for travel, you’ll go back to the vrath and the empire.”

Kael found he didn’t know how to respond. He’d entertained the thought of staying here, but he still wasn’t certain if it was just a fleeting fancy. The Citadel would have assumed him dead with the caravan, as would his family, which meant they wouldn’t be searching for him or expecting his return.

“To tell you the truth,” he said, with a heartfelt smile, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”