I shook my head, trying to pull away. “Jase, no—” But he pulled me closer and didn’t stop.
“When I asked, What is this? I already knew. I knew what I felt, what I was certain you felt too, but I was afraid to say it, because it was all new to me. It seemed too soon, too impossible. But everything about us didn’t just feel right, it felt like something rare, something delicate that I was afraid of breaking. Something that only comes along once in a lifetime.”
He lifted my chin so I had to look at him.
Don’t do this to me, Jase. It’s too late. Pain knifed through me, my insides in pieces. All I wanted to do was believe every word, forget all his lies, feed my fantasy. A thousand wish stalks throwing pleas to the universe that we were lost and alone on a star-filled ledge again.
“I don’t want to lose you, Kazi. I’m not asking for promises. I don’t even want an answer now, but I want to ask you to at least think about staying here with me. Forever.”
He cradled my face in his hands. “There. I’ve said it now, and I won’t take it back. I love you, Kazi of Brightmist, and I will never stop saying it, not through a thousand tomorrows.”
He slowly lowered his mouth to mine, and instead of turning away, I kissed him back. I tasted the sweetness of his tongue, and a wilderness swelled up around us, tall grass swaying at our ankles. I repeated my first glorious mistake again and again, but this time, I told myself, I was only smoothing it over.
* * *
Jalaine wasn’t in her room. Oleez told me I could find her in the solarium on the top floor of the house. In the summertime, the solarium was mostly abandoned. Even with all the windows open, the air could be stifling. There was no breeze today, and I already felt the blast of heat as I trudged up the last few steps.
The wide double doors were pushed open. It was an expansive room with high vaulted ceilings, furnished with plain wooden furniture. I guessed that in wintertime they were covered with colorful cushions and coverlets. The scent of cut greenery hung in the heavy air. Jalaine was in the corner, her back to me, tending some sort of large potted shrub, but she was just staring at it, as if lost in thought. A pair of shears hung limply in her hand. A few cut leaves lay scattered at her feet.
“Either come in or go away,” she called without turning.
Not as lost in thought as I had supposed. But then I realized she had seen me in the reflection of one of the many windows that were angled open. I entered and she returned to trimming the tiny leaves. Her thin white dress clung to her, damp with sweat. I eyed the shears in her hand. I still didn’t know if she knew I was the one who had killed Fertig.
“We’ve missed you at dinner,” I said.
She returned her attentions to the shrub. The quick furious snip of her shears cut the air. “I doubt that.”
I decided it was best to get right to the heart of the matter. “I’m sorry about Fertig.”
She turned to face me, the tiny leaves rustling under her feet. “Why would you be sorry? He almost killed you.” She looked at my neck, the bruises new shades of purple today.
“I’m sorry because you cared for him.”
“Fertig?” Her lip twisted with contempt. “I didn’t love Fertig. Is that what you thought? You came to comfort me over poor Fertig?”
She laughed and her mouth pressed into a miserable smile. “I was flattered by his attentions. That’s all. I enjoyed them.” It was strange to hear the deep bitterness in her voice. It aged her. “It all seemed harmless. He was amusing. I even wondered if he might grow on me in a more permanent way. Eventually. I was drawing it out, playing with him, because he was a distraction from the dull routine of the arena office.”
She tossed her shears onto the table and stared at them, her gaze lost in a distant world again. “But as it turned out, he was the one playing with me. Using me. He said he loved me, and I believed him. I was a gullible tool.”
I swallowed. “Anyone can be duped. No one blames you.”
That’s why he pulled me from the arena. And he’s right. I blame myself. I let the family down.”
“We all make mistakes, Jalaine. But we have to move on. Come to dinner tonight. Please. Your family is still your family. They want you there.”
She looked at me, brokenness filling her eyes. I saw her desire to be forgiven, but forgiving herself was another matter. Her pain riddled through me, something too familiar.
“I’ll think about it,” she said and turned away, still unconvinced. She grabbed a broom propped against the wall and began sweeping the cuttings into a pile.
I left to the scritch, scritch, scritch of the broom, Jalaine mindlessly sweeping, wandering in a world brimming with her own shame, and I was still uncertain if the problem of Jalaine coming to dinner was solved.
The stuffy staircase seemed like it circled around and down forever until I thought I would never take a deep breath again. I let the family down.
I raced to the last flight of stairs, wiping the sweat from my brow, and emerged on the cool landing at last. They are not my family, I reminded myself.