Kendall laughed softly, tearing off a bit of bread and tossing it into the pond. Almost instantly, the small flock of ducks zoomed in, fighting over it, only to voice their displeasure at the missed opportunity as they started to disburse. She repeated the process a few times, giggling quietly every time the fowl rushed in.
Leaning against a the gnarled, split trunk of an old river birch tree not far away, hands in his pockets, a lazy little grin gracing his features, Zain was content to watch her antics with the creatures.
She’d loved the idea, as they were walking rather aimlessly, when they’d passed a small park, and she had first noticed the ducks—loved it enough that she’d insisted upon running into a nearby bakery to buy a modest loaf of dense, dark bread. She wanted to buy a few of them, actually, but he had told her that one was plenty, hopefully not too much. Then again, quite a few more ducks had arrived shortly after the impromptu feeding had begun, so he wasn’t quite as worried about that as he had been, to start with . . .
“I’m sorry,” she said, holding her hands out, showing the ducks that they were empty. “I’m out of bread . . . My lord wouldn’t let me buy more.”
Rolling his eyes, he uttered a terse snort at the very blatant jibe, but his smile didn’t falter. “You would feel bad if you overfed them,” he told her then nodded at the one little duck that kept bobbing around her feet. Every so often, it would grab the hem of her dress in its bill and give a little tug. “That one either wants to be your new best friend or it’s trying to decide whether or not your skirt needs salt.”
Resting her elbows on her knees, she twisted her legs to the side to better see the overly-friendly duck. It quacked rather loudly since her movement also yanked her clothes away from it just before it could grab it once more. “I don’t suppose he’d do well in an apartment, do you?”
“I think there is an ordinance against such things in the city,” he replied. “I’d have to look into it for you.”
She turned to smile at him, but it was more than that. There was a simple radiance about her. She seemed completely content, at least for the moment—a far cry from the woman he’d found earlier. Pushing herself to her feet, she wandered over to stand beside him, her gaze still fixed on the birds in the water. “So what’s next on the agenda, my lord?”
He snorted indelicately, casting her a marked scowl that she missed completely since she still had yet to look at him. “For you to stop calling me that,” he said.
She blinked and finally glanced at him. “Calling you, what?”
Shaking his head, he shrugged. “My lord. I told you already, Zain would be just fine. In fact, I’d prefer it.”
She giggled and fluttered a delicate hand in his direction as her gaze slipped back to the pond once more. “And I told you, that would be highly unseemly, my lord.”
He grunted. “Hmm. Let’s bargain, then, shall we?”
That got her attention quickly enough, and she turned to face him, arching an eyebrow in silent question.
“What about calling me by name when we’re alone—like we are now?”
She was going to flat-out refuse him. He could see it in her expression. When she opened her mouth to do so, however, he pressed his index finger against her lips. The flush that shot to the fore was entirely becoming, and she didn’t pull away from him.
“I shouldn’t do that, either,” she murmured, gaze flittering away as the pretty blush deepened.
Catching her chin with a crooked finger, Zain gently lifted it, made her meet his gaze once more. “Please,” he said one more time, his voice a near-whisper.
She swallowed hard, lips quivering slightly, blinking once, twice. Her eyelashes were incredibly long, fanning over her cheeks like the feathers of a bird—he hadn’t noticed that before, probably because those dark blue eyes of hers were so incredibly vivid that it was hard to notice anything else when she was looking directly at him.
The strangest urge to lean down and kiss her took hold of him, and Zain let his hand drop away before he gave in to it. After all, if she thought that calling him by name was untoward, he could only imagine what her reaction to that would be . . . Still, it was with great effort that he managed to step away from her, pretending to look out at the ducks once more, digging his hands deep into his pockets as he stifled a sigh.
She didn’t say anything for several moments, and when he dared peer back at her over his shoulder, he frowned. Eyes downcast, worrying at her lower lip as she clutched her purse tightly in her hands, he’d have to be a fool to miss her acute discomfort. “What would you like to do next?” he asked, letting the previous subject die.
“Oh,” she blurted, glancing at him and then quickly away once more. “Oh, um . . . Whatever you’d like . . .?”
He could kick himself. He really could. ‘Right back to square one . . .’
‘It’s not that bad. You just flustered her; that’s all.’
‘. . . Bad enough.’
“Y . . . You’re . . . angry,” she said with a grimace when he remained silent. “I-I should go home . . .”
“No, wait,” he hurried to say, lunging after her when she turned to leave. Catching her hand, he stayed her, only letting go when she stopped trying to get away. “That was my fault. I swear I’m not angry . . . I’m sorry.”
She didn’t look like she believed him, but she didn’t try to move away from him, either. “You’re sure you’re not angry?” she asked at length.
He nodded. “Yes, I’m sure,” he said. “So tell me, is there anything in particular you want to do?”
Though she seemed a little surprised by his question, she smiled rather tentatively. “Nothing especially,” she said with an offhanded shrug.
Zain heaved an exaggerated sigh and slowly shook his head. Stepping toward her once more, he reached out and took her hand, pulling her along beside him. “Come on,” he remarked, ambling toward the main path. “Let’s just walk then. We’ll figure out what you want to do as we go.”
She glanced up at him, her gaze still serious despite the small smile that touched her lips. “Is this how you usually do things? Just off the cuff?”
He chuckled and shook his head. “Actually, no,” he admitted. “In fact, my best friend would probably be shocked if he knew about this.”
She digested that in silence for a moment then laughed. “So this is as foreign to you as it is to me.”
Nodding as he lifted his chin, as he stared up at the bright blue sky overhead, he gave her hand a little squeeze. “I guess there’s something to be said for spontaneity.”
“You think so?”
Another chuckle escaped him as he shot her a meaningful glance. “Yeah, I think I do.”
“You wanted to see me?”
Uriah Marner waved a hand in the vague direction of the chairs situated across from the broad mahogany desk but didn’t look up from the papers he was looking over. “Yes, yes . . . Sit.”
Settling into one of the straight-backed chairs, Will Marner slumped down, crossing his arms over his chest, letting his long legs sprawl out on the floor before him. As minutes ticked away, as his father seemed far more interested in whatever was on those papers than he was in telling William why he’d summoned him, he finally cleared his throat and sat up. “Would you rather that I come back later?”
Glancing up with a start, the bobcat-youkai seemed a little disoriented for all of three seconds before he brushed off Will’s question with a flick of his wrist. “Of course not. I don’t feel like waiting another week or more before you bother to show your face here again.”
Breaking into a rather devilish smile, Will chuckled since he did tend to ignore the missives demanding that he return home immediately. “Oh, was this something urgent?”
Frowning at his son’s flip response, Uriah stubbornly shook his head. “Any time I summon you home, it’s important,” he insisted.
Stifling a sigh, Will nodded dutifully. “Understood, Father,” he replied. “What is it you wished to discuss with me?”
Uriah reached for the black lacquered humidor that always sat upon his desktop, taking an inordinate amount of time in checking the hygrometer reading. Satisfied that the conditions inside the box were to his liking, he then proceeded to take his time in selecting one of his ungodly expensive Arturo Fuente cigars, cutting off the end and lighting it. Staring at the rising smoke, he savored the first few tokes off the stogy before he spoke. “I have arranged your marriage.”
Will blinked once, twice, and sat up a little straighter. “Come again?”
Uriah leveled a no-nonsense look at his son. “Your marriage, boy. It’s been arranged.”
Shifting slightly in his seat, Will took a moment to measure his words. He’d rather begun to think that maybe his father was going to leave him alone on that store. He really should have known better. “This is . . . awfully sudden, isn’t it?” he finally asked.
“Sudden? You’re thirty-four years old, William. It’s high time you married and continued the line,” Uriah insisted. Then he smiled, looking for all the world like the cat that had eaten the proverbial canary. “She is the perfect match for you—and your marriage will strengthen our control here as well as extend our influence in the western district.”
“The western district,” Will echoed with a slow nod of understanding. “Then Farington’s daughter, you mean.”
“That fool was more than happy to jump at the chance to barter off his daughter,” Uriah went on, leaning back in his chair while he gloated. “After your wedding, it will be easy enough to simply get rid of Farington as well as that weakling son of his . . . You’re thought of highly enough that your appointment as the general of the western region would only be natural. Since I am still currently in charge here, then it would be simple enough to install you in the west, and then your brother can take over here when I’m ready to stand down.”
Staring at his father for long moments, Will said nothing as he contemplated his father’s plans. He knew what the ultimate goal was, and he knew that Uriah was willing to pay just about any price to see it to fruition. His father viewed the entire thing as little more than a poker game, really. But then, that’s how Uriah tended to view most things in life.
Will was not quite as relaxed about it all, which was neither here nor there. Apparently, his part to play was wholly different from what he’d originally thought . . .
“I told Farington that we would appreciate his cooperation to ensure that the wedding takes place as soon as possible. He didn’t see a problem with that,” Uriah went on as casually as though he were discussing the weather.
“And his daughter is in agreement?” Will asked.
Uriah shot his son a withering glower as he tapped his cigar against the crystal ashtray. “Who cares? She doesn’t really have a say in the matter, any more than you do.”
Pasting on a tight little smile, Will nodded once. “Of course,” he allowed. “Now, if that is all . . .?”
“Not quite,” Uriah said, waving at the chair once more when Will started to get to his feet. Smothering a sigh, he did as he was told, clasping his hands over his stomach as he slouched back once again. “Farington’s getting married next month—marrying his mistress, of all the outrageous things—and you will be invited.” Pausing for a pregnant second while he regarded his son carefully, Uriah narrowed his eyes just a little. “You will be there, William.”
“I’ll check my calendar,” Will replied.
Uriah pointed his cigar at him. “No, you will be there, and you will introduce yourself to your future wife, and if you’re smart, you’ll at least pretend to be interested in her.” Leaving that warning hanging in the air while he took another long drag off the cigar, Uriah suddenly chuckled dryly. “Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter, one way or the other. It’s simply to say that it’ll make dealing with her later that much simpler if you at least act personable.”
“Absolutely,” Will agreed, hauling himself out of the chair once more. This time, Uriah didn’t try to stop him. “As always, it’s been a pleasure, Father. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have dinner plans, and I don’t dare be late.”
“What kind of dinner plans, you miscreant?” Uriah demanded, rising to his feet in case he needed to detain Will.
Will chuckled since his father had every reason to worry on that score. Will wasn’t exactly known for his discretion when it came to the company he kept. Tying himself down to one woman when there were so many to choose from? He wasn’t entirely sure he liked that idea, at all. “Don’t be so eager to hang me,” he complained. “It just so happens that Elizabeth is back from Chicago, and she begged me to meet her for dinner.”
Uriah grunted at the mention of his daughter, but at least he seemed to relax slightly. “Ah, then so be it,” he muttered as he turned toward the windows overlooking the well-manicured garden of the Marner estate. “I will send you the information regarding Farington’s wedding in the next few days.”
Will bowed slightly and finally turned to leave the room.
‘Crazy old man,’ he thought as he closed the door behind him and strode down the hall. As dark and foreboding as ever, the place was. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d ever really felt at home here, and now was no different. An arranged marriage to a girl he’d never even laid eyes on before? Somehow, it felt more like a surefire recipe for imminent disaster . . .
Well, he supposed that if it came down to it, he could always have his mistresses on the side. He may have to be a bit more careful about being seen in public with them, but that was all right, too. The only real objection he had was simply that women tended to complicate things more than was necessary.
So the time was approaching.
Tensions were high, and he knew that. The pseudo-competition that existed between the regions for supremacy was always something that had existed through generations. It all amounted to little more than the manipulation of pawns on a chessboard, as it were, and his father was not above using him as one of those pawns, either, but that was something to which Will had grown quite accustomed over the years.
Uriah Marner tended to be a better player than most, though. At a point in time when the current tai-youkai’s habit of looking the other way while leaving his followers to work out their own issues, the Third’s complacency only served to further Uriah’s ultimate plan.
But to target Titus Farington in such a way? The man was formidable in his own right—not surprising since the western region tended to be a lot more rough-and-tumble than the other districts. In order for the reigning general to keep order, he had to be strong. Still . . .
Will had to admit, he hadn’t seen that one coming; not at all . . .
“Are you all right now?”
Kendall made a face and shook her head at Zain, who had his eyes closed, head tilted back as he reclined on the grass, propped up on his elbows. The effect was lost since he couldn’t see her, so she smiled wanly. It had occurred to her that he was probably ruining his perfectly pressed white dress shirt, but he didn’t seem to mind, and she had to wonder if he ever wore anything a little more casual since all she had ever seen him wear was relatively formal attire. Not that he looked bad in the black slacks he seemed to favor, but she had very little doubt that a worn pair of jeans would do him justice, as well . . .
“You’re not still feeling out of sorts, are you?” he continued as the slight breeze stirred the long strands of his pitch black hair. Falling to the middle of his lower back, his hair looked like it had never been cut before, which was a rather archaic thing. Though youkai tended to wear their hair long in the past, in more recent times, they had given into the style trends more, and most men these days tended to wear their hair much shorter. Somehow, though, the long hair seemed much more natural on him.
“My stomach has settled down,” she assured him, sounding a little more petulant than she might have preferred otherwise.
He chuckled. It was a very nice sound, full of warmth, of a kind of unspoken emotion that bordered on a certain intimacy that Kendall didn’t dare dwell upon. “I warned you that you shouldn’t eat that entire pretzel by yourself,” he reminded her.
Wrinkling her nose at the hint of gloating in his tone, she still couldn’t help but to smile. “It was really good,” she pointed out without sounding sorry in the least for the impromptu rest that he had decided was in order when she’d started to feel a little queasy. Still, she couldn’t complain. The pretzel he’d bought her from a vendor cart just inside the large park was really good, even if it had been coated with a little more salt than it needed.
The mustard dipping sauce was very tasty, too.
“You wouldn’t have thought so if you had gotten sick,” he told her. “I thought you were going to share it.”
Rolling her eyes, Kendall giggled. “After you made that horrible face when I ripped off some of it for you?”
“I didn’t make a face about the pretzel. I was just horrified by the huge mass of it that you’d shoved into your mouth right before that.”
Which made her giggle harder. That was true enough. Her first bite had been incredibly large . . . “A gentleman would try to ignore a lady’s more embarrassing moments,” she told him, fiddling with the fabric of her skirt in an idle kind of way.
“A lady wouldn’t try to shove a piece of anything into her mouth that was big enough to choke a horse,” he retorted.
“I don’t think you’re nearly as nice as I thought you were when I first met you,” she told him.
He leaned his head back a little more, opening his eyes and gazing at her, which was probably a little odd, given that he was seeing her from an upside down perspective. “You’re right,” he allowed simply. “I’m not actually ‘nice’.”
“You sent me flowers,” she reminded him.
“I had ulterior motives for that.”
“Oh? What kind of ulterior motives?”
He chuckled again. “I wanted to hear you play for me again, of course.”
“O-Oh,” she breathed, lowering her gaze to her lap quickly. He’d said it in a teasing tone, sure, but . . . But was that it? Was that the only reason?
A sudden rush of nerves crashed down on her, and Kendall ducked her chin a little lower, pretended to be examining her manicure.
“Okay,” he said, his tone taking on a much gentler note. “I said something to upset you, didn’t I?”
“No,” she blurted, forcing herself to meet his gaze again, forcing a smile that she hoped wasn’t nearly as artificial as it felt. “Of course not.”
Sitting up, hooking his arms around his knees, Zain shook his head. “You can tell me if something’s bothering you,” he said. “In fact, I’d prefer it if you would.”
“It’s nothing,” she insisted. “It’s just . . . was that the reason you’ve been so nice to me? To hear me play piano?”
He didn’t move for a few moments, and then he stood up, wandering over to her, sitting beside her on the weathered wooden bench. “I want to say yes,” he admitted, his expression taking on an almost chagrined kind of slant. “But no, that wasn’t the only reason . . . and I swear I told you already that I’m not really ‘nice’.”
‘Not the only reason . . .?’ She smiled a little hesitantly. “What are you, then, if you’re not nice?”
A thoughtful frown drew his eyebrows together, and he stared at her before answering. “A tai-youkai isn’t allowed the convenience of being nice,” he told her. “At least, that’s what they’ve always said.” He shook his head and suddenly chuckled, but the sound was touched by the barest hint of something a little darker, a little weary, almost pathetic, but that word didn’t quite suit him. “I used to get lectured a lot because I didn’t see challenges through properly, or so they said. They always told me that I was being nice, but that really wasn’t the case. It just seemed . . . pointless, I guess. Why kill off someone over some trivial adolescent argument just because someone gets hotheaded enough to use the word ‘challenge’?”
She thought about that. Sure, she realized that children were taught early on that using the word ‘challenge’ was a grave thing, something not meant to be taken lightly, but then, Zain made a valid point, too, didn’t he? Even if the word was used, did someone that age really understand the consequences? Considering that youkai could easily live hundreds of years at a stretch, the very idea of death was somewhat abstract to many teenagers who had never actually had to deal with someone close to them dying.
And Zain understood that on some level, didn’t he? Maybe he claimed that it wasn’t kindness, but she wasn’t so sure. Aloof, yes. Possessing that innate sense of self-worth that only someone highly privileged from birth could attain, certainly. Still, she could sense it, the feeling that he had been brought up with as many rules as she had, as many restrictions on his freedom as she had. His rules were vastly different from her own, and that she could understand, but fundamentally, the end result was still the same, wasn’t it? Perhaps his life really wasn’t as different from her own.
“So you’ve never killed anyone who has challenged you?”
The smile that touched his lips was more of a grimace, almost apologetic—not quite, though. “I never killed anyone while I was still in school,” he corrected. “The first real challenge I was issued came when I was in college, my last year: a wind youkai who wanted to put an end to the Jericho line, and he thought he would start with me.”
Kendall frowned, staring down at her hands, folded in her lap. What would it be like to have to live your life, worrying that someone, somewhere was going to challenge you to a fight to the death; not because you had done anything to them personally, but just because they were displeased with the way that things were handled by the tai-youkai . . .? She couldn’t image it. “But you don’t get challenged a lot, do you?”
He shrugged. “No, not really. Twice so far.” He must have seen the distress on her features because he sighed and shook his head. “It happens. It’s just how things are.”
She knew that. Of course, she did. That didn’t make her feel any better about it, but she wasn’t a child, and even if she didn’t like to dwell upon the darker things in the world, she knew of them. “It just seems like a harsh thing to live with,” she said.
“Maybe if I did nothing but think about it,” he agreed. “I prefer not to. There are much more interesting things to think about; things that I’d much rather my time considering. You, for example.”
He’d said it so off-the-cuff that it took Kendall a few seconds to realize just what he’d said, and when she glanced at him, it was to find him staring up at the sky again, eyes bright but no trace of anything readable on his face. “Think about . . . me?” she asked hesitantly.
He finally smiled his little half-smile that she was coming to know so well. “Does that bother you?”
Biting her lip, Kendall broke into a little grin as a light flush dusted her cheeks, as she ducked her chin once more while she tried to remember that she really needed to breathe. “N . . . No,” she finally whispered.
“Good,” he said. She could feel his gaze on her though he hadn’t moved his head. “You could, too, if you wanted.”
She giggled, stealing a sidelong glance at him, only to blush a little darker when she caught him staring at her in much the same way. “What could I do?”
He chuckled. “Spend your time considering me.”
The laughter died away, but he still seemed amused. “Yes. In fact, I think you should.”
All the characters in The Fulcrum belong to me.
Any similarities to any person, alive or dead, real or implied, are coincidental.