“It’s a pleasure to meet you, my lord.”
Zain took the hand that Elizabeth Marner offered and brushed a chaste kiss over the back of it before letting go and taking a step back. “The pleasure’s mine.”
The lady smiled demurely: one of those smiles that was cultivated over years of practice, no doubt. Auburn hair perfectly arranged, her face perfectly powdered, every single thing about her seemed a little too polished, a little too refined. Just how long had she spent at the salon, trying to achieve this visage, and all for tonight? Hoping to catch a husband, of course. He scowled inwardly. Considering he’d seen all of it before, he couldn’t help the trace hint of disgust that flickered to life just below the surface of his otherwise-calm façade. The faces might change, but the underlying motivation was always the same.
“Your presence is even more overwhelming than I’d heard, my lord,” she said, reddish-brown eyes fluttering closed coquettishly just before she broke into a secretive little smile.
He might have sighed if he weren’t entirely too aware of the onlookers watching everything about the wholly perfunctory exchange. “You flatter me,” he replied instead, his lips barely quirking up in a reasonable facsimile of a smile.
A soft hand with gently manicured fingers touched his arm. “I thank you so much for inviting us into your home.”
It wasn’t his home, but he didn’t disabuse her of that notion, either. “You’re very welcome.”
‘Ugh, it sounds like a novel—a really bad novel,’ his youkai-voice muttered.
Unfortunately, it rather did, didn’t it? “Do enjoy yourself,” he said, inclining his head slightly. “There are a few matters I must discuss with my father before dinner.”
Elizabeth nodded quickly, her smile widening though he could sense the underlying unrest at his blatant dismissal. That didn’t stop him, and he turned away to step over to Heller’s side. “A word, if I may?”
Heller didn’t look at all surprised by his son’s demand. If anything, he looked rather amused, but he allowed Zain to lead the way out of the parlor and down the hallway to his study. “She doesn’t please you,” he said as the doors closed behind them. It wasn’t a question.
“She doesn’t displease me,” Zain corrected mildly and without hesitation as he strode over to the sideboard to fill two glasses with scotch.
Accepting one of the glasses from his son, Heller chuckled softly. “But she isn’t one you would consider.”
“Do I have a say in the matter?”
“You always have a say in it when it involves you.”
Zain blinked, momentarily taken by surprise at his father’s statement, and his tone bespoke his blatant cynicism. “Do I really?”
Heller’s amusement dimmed at the caustic tone of Zain’s question, but it didn’t disappear entirely. “In my time, there wasn’t a question about it,” he admitted with a little shrug, as though he were simply stating things that Zain ought to know already. “Even now, most of our station believe that it’s better to make these kinds of decisions with a rational, unclouded mind, unblinded by things like lust, which is why we as parents tend to see to the arrangements.”
“I understand the logic behind it, Father. I suppose in that sense, you are not wrong.”
Heller chuckled again. “Yes, well, your mother disagrees.”
Zain nearly smiled. He’d figured it had something to do with that. Despite the fact that Karis did so enjoy parading available women under her son’s nose, once he said that a particular woman wouldn’t suit, she had no reluctance when it came to dropping the girl like the proverbial hot potato. “Is that so.”
“Your mother seems to think that we should allow you to choose someone to your liking—as long as we approve, that is.”
Staring at his father for a moment, Zain wasn’t entirely sure what to think of it. It was true that Karis and Heller loved each other—a rare and fortunate occurrence—but for his mother to have actually argued for such a thing? Was it really possible?
Heller sighed and strode over to the desk, settling himself behind it before speaking again. He looked thoughtful, however, as he swirled the contents of his glass in an idle kind of way. “Over the years, your mother has changed a great number of things that I used to believe,” he said quietly, thoughtfully. “I don’t think she meant to do any such thing, of course, but when you wake up every morning, and you look over and realize just how much you love the one next to you . . . You should have that, too, Zain.” Heller chuckled and downed the rest of the scotch. “However, we both feel that it should be all right to guide you in this endeavor by introducing you to young ladies who would be a good match for the future tai-youkai.”
Sinking down in one of the chairs across from Heller’s desk, Zain propped his elbow on the arm, curling a finger over his lips as he regarded his father. He looked the same as always, of course. Midnight hair flowing down his back, all the starker in the lengthening shadows as the moon rose higher in the sky outside the bank of windows behind him, orange eyes ringed with just the barest hint of darker brown unsettling as they gazed back at him . . . Heller was well over two centuries old, and yet he could easily pass for Zain’s older brother. He was certainly not the oldest of the youkai, but given that he was a reigning tai-youkai, it was impressive.
“Do you know why most youkai die?” Heller asked quietly.
Surprised by the abrupt change in topics, Zain regarded his father for a moment before replying. “Because they become careless.”
Heller nodded slowly, an almost sad sort of frown crossing his features. “That is true,” he conceded, “but do you know why?”
Zain remained quiet. In truth, he hadn’t stopped to think about that. What was the point? Sooner or later, youkai had a tendency to self-destruct in one way or another. Passing away due to natural causes wasn’t a regular occurrence.
Heller sighed, his gaze taking on a faraway kind of expression, as though he were looking into the future or the past that Zain couldn’t see. “My father never found it—love, I mean,” he finally said. “My mother was his only wife, and he never thought to have any others. He had lovers, of course, and I even met a few of them, but they were never anything special . . . and I have to wonder, would he still be alive today if he had found someone he had perceived to be special?”
Zain frowned, mostly because the vague memories he had of his grandfather were so old and surely tainted by a child’s lack of understanding, but still, he could recall a certain sadness that had always seemed to surround him, too, but whether that image was true or just something conjured up because of the topic of conversation, he didn’t rightfully know.
“Most youkai become weary,” Heller went on in a much stronger tone, though he spoke slowly, deliberately, considering his words carefully. “They live in whatever era in which they are born, and not all youkai are able to sustain the will to change with the passage of centuries. I do not flatter myself to think that I would have possessed the same will that I do now if it weren’t for your mother . . . and I cannot help but to wonder if . . .”
He left half-question hanging in the air, his voice trailing off as though he hadn’t realized that he was speaking out loud at all.
A soft knock on the door drew their attention as Karis slipped into the room. “Dinner is served,” she said, stepping forward to give Zain’s shoulder a squeeze. He stood and bowed to his mother before slipping out of the office once more.
“He looked a bit pensive,” Karis remarked as Heller slowly got to his feet.
Heller shot his wife an indulgent sort of look—not quite a smile, but definitely amused. “Hmm . . . I simply told him what we have been discussing for some time.”
Her lips turned up in the barest of grins. “And he was surprised.”
Chuckling softly, Heller slipped an arm around her and kissed her cheek. “He shall be my experiment. We will see if the bonds of love truly are stronger than the bonds of power . . . but whether he succeeds or fails . . .”
Karis nodded slowly, understanding Heller’s unfinished statement. They’d debated this subject ad nauseam already. “He could be the downfall of the House of Jericho,” she mused, voicing the biggest concern in Heller’s mind.
With a soft sigh, Heller nodded, too, his eyes taking on a hazy glow as a smile quirked his lips. “Or,” he added, stating Karis’ true belief, “he could save us all.”
“I don’t think either of those is ‘right’.”
Kendall blinked and frowned at the two dresses she’d pulled from her closet, then glanced at Mimi Phelps as the latter perched on the edge of the bed, tapping one foot on the floor, arms crossed over her chest as she concentrated on the garments.
“You don’t think so?”
Mimi shook her head slowly. “No-o-o-o. The pink one is too . . . childish, don’t you think? And the white one? It’s pretty but rather smacks of First Communion, if you ask me. Not really what you want to wear for your first recital, is it?”
“I’ve had others,” Kendall grumbled, turning the dresses to give them a little closer scrutiny. Okay, so she could see what Mimi was talking about with the pink gown. With all the ruffles and ribbons, it did look rather like it belonged at a little girl’s tea party. The white one, though, was very simple, even if it did have a lace overlay.
“It’s your first one here at the Conservatory,” Mimi insisted.
“Yes, but . . .”
“It looks just like the dress I did wear for my First Communion,” Mimi stated flatly.
Pressing her lips together, Kendall couldn’t decide whether to be irritated or amused at her best friend’s assessment. Trust Mimi to be entirely blunt and to-the-point, which was something that Kendall appreciated most of the time. But she understood what Mimi meant, even if she didn’t completely agree about the white dress . . .
“So what do you suggest?” she asked instead, hanging the dresses back in the closet with a sigh. Less than a week before the recital, and she ought to be practicing the piece, not standing here, fussing over what she was going to wear.
Rising off the edge of the bed, Mimi smiled, deep dimples carving into her cheeks as her deep brown eyes sparkled. In all of her life, Kendall could only really say that she’d ever met one person whose eyes smiled, too, and that was Mimi. No matter what kind of mood she was in, once Mimi smiled, so did Kendall, and this time was no different. “Let’s go shopping,” she suggested.
“Are you sure I don’t have something suitable already?” Kendall argued, knowing somewhere deep down that she wasn’t about to win this round.
“Come on, Kendall,” she coaxed, grabbing Kendall’s arm and dragging her from the bedroom. “Besides, I’ll have you know that I heard something absolutely fantastic today.”
Kendall opened her mouth to reply but caught sight of the piano sitting nearby. It seemed to be chastising her for ignoring her need to practice, which was utterly ridiculous, all things considered. “You shouldn’t listen to gossip,” she pointed out.
Mimi wrinkled her nose, pausing only long enough to grab their purses off the stand near the door. “I know, but I couldn’t resist this one!”
Rolling her eyes despite the smile on her face, Kendall pushed the button in the hallway to call the elevator. “All right,” she relented. “What did you hear?”
She almost squealed—almost. “There’s going to be a special performance for the piano division!”
Stepping into the elevator, Kendall rolled her eyes and pushed the button to take them down to the main floor of the apartment building. “There are lots of guest performers,” she pointed out reasonably. “And you get them, too, in the violin department.”
Waving off Kendall’s lack of enthusiasm, Mimi giggled. She was so excited about this guest performer that she didn’t even seem to notice the sudden lurch as the elevator began to move, which was entirely unlike her. Mimi hated elevators more than anything else, not that Kendall blamed her. She wasn’t very fond of them, either . . .
“You don’t understand! You have to ask me who it is!”
Kendall giggled at Mimi’s excitement. “Okay, okay. Who is it?”
Mimi pressed her hands against her chest as though she thought that her heart might try to escape, and then she leaned in closer, despite the fact that they were the only two in the cubicle. “The Fourth!”
Mimi nodded and squeaked out another excited giggle. “The Fourth!” she repeated. “Can you believe it? I didn’t even know that he knew how to play, but that’s what I heard! I wish I could transfer to piano . . .”
“You can’t play piano any better than I can play the violin,” Kendall reminded her.
Mimi giggled. “I can play ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’,” she quipped. Gasping suddenly, she grabbed Kendall’s arm. “Can you sneak a camera in? If you’re careful, you could record it so I can see it, too!”
“You know I can’t,” Kendall replied calmly. It was prohibited since the guest performers always donated their time, and a number of years ago, some students had gotten caught selling bootleg videos. Last year, two girls were expelled for trying to tape one. “I would if I could,” she said to soften the blow.
Mimi heaved a sigh. “I know; I know . . . but it’s the Fourth!”
Breaking into a small smile as the elevator lurched to a stop, Kendall shook her head. Mimi had an almost unhealthy preoccupation with the Fourth—Zain Jericho—the one who would be the fourth North American tai-youkai—since she’d met him at a garden party years ago. Though she was just a child and he was easily ten years or more older, the impression he’d made upon her had stuck. “Maybe you should ask for a special recommendation to allow you to attend the performance,” Kendall suggested.
Mimi’s eyes widened. “I hadn’t thought of that! I mean, they might let me, right?”
To be honest, the odds were against it since she was pretty sure that Mimi couldn’t possibly be the only other student interested in asking for a recommendation, but she didn’t have the heart to point that out to Mimi, either. Still, her best friend was in good spirits as the two stepped out of the elevator and headed for the door. The guard near the glass doors nodded at them in passing.
“Maybe I should buy a new dress, too . . . Do you think he remembers me?” Mimi asked.
“Maybe,” Kendall allowed though she rather doubted that, too. After all, why in the world would he ever remember someone who was no more than a child back then? Still, she wasn’t about to be the one to burst Mimi’s bubble, either. Besides, in all the years that Kendall had known her, Mimi had never, ever even given another guy a backward glance, not since meeting the Fourth.
“He did give me that flower,” Mimi reminded her.
And Kendall knew that, too. If she’d said it once, she’d said it a million times: the white Oriental hybrid lily with the deep pink flecks and inner petals—a stargazer lily . . . No coincidence that it was now Mimi’s favorite flower. “Then maybe he will.”
Heaving a deep sigh, Mimi looked like she was a world away, lost in a realm of complete and utter joy at the moment—probably reliving that day in her head, no doubt. “I wish you would have come with me,” she remarked at length while Kendall hailed a taxi. They could have asked for a driver, but she already felt bad enough about stepping out while she ought to be practicing that she didn’t want to wait long enough for one to bring a car around.
“Then you’d have to share him, and you didn’t want that, now did you?”
Mimi giggled as the two slipped into the taxi. “Raybourne’s on Fifth Avenue, please,” she said, settling against the nondescript tan vinyl upholstery. “If he was that good looking back then, can you imagine what he would look like now?”
Kendall glanced at her watch and suppressed the urge to sigh. “Maybe he’s grown fat and ugly—with a big wart on the end of his nose.”
Mimi’s giggling escalated, and she gave Kendall a playful shove with her shoulder. “I refuse to believe that,” she insisted, her cheeks pinking slightly. “You’ll see, Kendall—and then you’ll have to tell me that I was right and you were wrong!”
Kendall rolled her eyes but laughed. “And then, you’ll gloat.”
Mimi’s smile widened. “And then, I’ll gloat.”
Zain stared at the email reservation for a few moments before tapping the screen to close it as he strode toward the doors of the Julius Opernheim Performance Center in the middle of the Opernheim Conservatory campus, wondering if he would actually make it to the airport on time. The flight out was scheduled to depart at six, but he still would have to contend with security first, and who knew how long that would take, but the trip wasn’t something he’d planned on. In fact, the first he’d heard of it was five minutes ago when his father had sent the brief message. As it was, he’d have to leave the briefing until he was on the plane, and if he had his way, he’d cancel the performance that he was scheduled to give. Unfortunately, it was really too late to do that now. As it was, he’d have to apologize for not being able to stay for questions . . .
Jamison greeted him at the door with a broad smile. “So you did make it. I was starting to wonder. This is Stan Crenshaw, head of the piano department.”
Sparing a moment to shake the professor’s hand, Zain nodded in greeting.
“Dominique Foight speaks highly of your skills, my lord,” Crenshaw said, grasping Zain’s hand in both of his and bowing slightly in a show of respect. Aside from Zain’s father, Crenshaw was only the second person he’d ever heard address Headmaster Foight of the Branch-Haven Equinox Academy, the school Zain had attended, by his first name. “I cannot tell you how pleased we are that you’ve accepted our invitation.”
“Not a problem. I’m honored to have been asked to perform,” Zain insisted. “If you don’t mind, I need to talk to Jamison for a moment?”
Crenshaw nodded quickly, smile broadening on his face. “I’ll make sure everything’s ready for you,” he assured Zain, who dismissed the professor a moment later as he grabbed Jamison’s arm to propel him toward a quiet corner.
“I’m flying out right after the performance,” he said before Jamison could respond. “I can’t stay to meet the students or anything.”
“But they’re really looking forward to speaking to you,” Jamison pointed out.
“Not my choice,” Zain muttered. “There’s a disturbance, and Father wants me to check it out.”
Making a face, Jamison looked anything but impressed with Zain’s statement, but he shrugged and shot him a ‘what-can-you-do’ kind of expression. “Well, at least you’ll be able to play.”
“Sorry, Jamie,” Zain replied in as close to an apologetic tone as he could manage.
“You’ve got an hour until you’re on, so if you want, I can show you to a practice room now.”
Zain nodded. He likely wouldn’t be warming up, but he ought to at least call Heller and get the gist of what was happening in the southern district.
Leading the way down a hallway that circled around the outside of the concert hall, Jamison sighed then chuckled. “You’re all the females on campus have been talking about since it leaked that you were performing,” he admitted as he dug his hands into his pockets.
“I am guessing that you think I should be flattered.”
“You should be. Do you have any idea just how many special requests I’ve had to decline this week? Girls from other departments that want to attend your performance?”
“You declined them all?”
“It’s the rule,” Jamison said. “Unless it’s an orchestra or ensemble, and even then, the extra tickets are always snatched up fast. Since you’re only doing a couple pieces on the piano, we thought it would be best to stick to the rules, and besides, if we had allowed one, we would have had to allow them all, and to be honest, I’m not sure that the hall could accommodate that many of them. Some of them even asked to allow their families to attend, if you can believe that . . . Oh, before I forget . . . It may take a few extra minutes to seat everyone. Crenshaw is going to be extra diligent about keeping cell phones and any other means of recording you out of there.”
Zain stopped mid-step and raised an eyebrow. “I don’t care if someone records it or not,” he pointed out.
Jamison chuckled. “I didn’t think you would. Standard protocol.” Stopping outside of a darkened room, he gestured inside. “You can get warmed up in here. I’ll come get you when it’s time.”
“Thank you,” Zain said, slipping past Jamison, who nodded at him and waved a hand toward a small refrigerator off to the right.
“Help yourself. There’s water . . . I think there might be wine in there—you know, settle the nerves if you’re so inclined.”
Zain shook his head as Jamison closed the door. Then he dug his cell phone out of his pocket to call Heller.
The door opened behind him, and for a second, Zain thought that Jamison had come back. That thought disappeared quickly enough. It wasn’t Jamison’s youki that he sensed. A moment later, the gentle scent of a softly floral perfume invaded his senses, and he slowly turned around. “May I help you?”
The girl gasped, very nearly dropping the music score she had clenched against her chest as her deep blue eyes flared wide, as embarrassed color flooded her cheeks. “I’m so sorry,” she blurted, taking a step back and smacking into the door, causing her white-blonde hair to cascade over her shoulder. Caught up in a simple clip atop her head, it was trying to stay out of her face despite the fine strands that had escaped to frame her face prettily. “I thought this room was empty—Professor Armand said it was all right for me to practice here . . .”
“Why aren’t you practicing in the piano building?” he couldn’t help asking. Something about the flustered expression on her face very nearly made him smile.
“Uh . . . Oh, they were all reserved today,” she said, swallowing hard as she freshened her hold upon the score. “I wanted to go through his another time or two before the . . .” Trailing off, she cleared her throat as the sweet flush on her cheeks darkened. “B-Before your performance . . . my lord.”
“Zain,” he corrected, unsure just why he was bothering to do so—unsure why he didn’t like the sound of those words coming from her. “Just Zain will suffice.”
For a moment, he thought she might whirl around and run. He reached out to stop her, but she swallowed hard and quickly shook her head. “That would . . . be improper, my lord,” she murmured, her gaze dropping to the floor, the toes of her sensible white flats digging against the marble beneath her feet.
Letting out a deep breath, he took a step away from the ebony baby grand piano set up in the center of the room. “Then why don’t you tell me your name and play for me? It’s been said that there are no strangers in music, you know.”
She shot him a quick look, like she wasn’t entirely sure what to think of his claim. “I-I couldn’t possibly,” she blurted, her voice taking on a breathlessness that he doubted she was even aware of. “I’m not that skilled, and—”
“You’re a piano student here, aren’t you?” Zain countered mildly, striding over to the refrigerator to retrieve two bottles of water. “If you’re studying here, then you’ve got to have some talent.”
Staring at the bottle of water that he held out to her, she almost smiled as she hesitantly reached out to take it. “Th-Thank you . . .”
“May I?” he asked, holding out his hand, gesturing at the score.
She seemed surprised for a moment, then she handed it to him.
“Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Number 3? Difficult,” he said, leafing through the piece, taking in the penciled-in notes. “Very difficult . . . Will you play for me?”
“I’m really not—I mean, I—”
She blinked as though she were surprised to hear his soft entreaty. After considering it for a long moment, she gave one jerky nod before stepping past him.
He wasn’t sure if he was more surprised at the grace, the skill, with which she manipulated the notes or the fact that, about the moment her fingers touched the keys, her eyes drifted closed. There were subtle mistakes—no, not mistakes—subtle changes in the interpretation of the piece that neither strayed too far nor pushed too hard, and yet, the simple dynamics seemed to flow. It was a powerful piece, and it had amused him to see it in her hands, but the amusement dissolved as fast as it had come as he listened in silence.
Such a delicate creature, she was, that she seemed almost at odds with the concerto she played, and somehow, the paradox seemed right, too. The dramatic piece, her slender fingers, even the curve of her wrists . . . If she was nervous, she didn’t show it. In fact, she almost seemed to be lost in her own little world, and the deeper she delved into the music, the further she spiraled away from him.
Yet there was a strange feeling in the depths of him, a foreign desire to pull her back—to touch her before she slipped away. As though the concerto had the ability to draw her out of his grasp—silly thought, wasn’t it? She wasn’t his, to begin with.
But as the concerto flowed from her fingers to fill the air in the small practice room, he couldn’t help the nagging feeling somewhere deep down that a part of him did know her, even if he still had yet to get her name. It was a strange sense of familiarity that he didn’t really comprehend, and somehow, the thought did not bother him, either. Staring at her profile, at the softness of her features, the gentle curves and hollows, he simply couldn’t look away, and whether it was the song she so deftly, skillfully played or the warmth of the aura that wrapped around her, he didn’t know and simply did not care.
Still . . .
“I’m . . . I’m sure you’ve heard better,” she said apologetically as she slowly turned on the bench, her head lowered, even as the rich tones of the piano lingered in the room. The rise of her youki was strong, almost frantic, as though she were trying to brace herself against whatever critique he might have.
Zain blinked, unable to speak for several long moments. It took that long for the song to fade in his mind, enough so that he could think, that he could articulate anything at all.
Then he chuckled. “You’re the one who should be performing here today,” he said, shaking his head slowly, admitting defeat with as much grace as he could muster. “That was . . . beautiful.”
Her mouth fell open; delicate dusty pink lips parting as those deep blue eyes rounded in wonder. As though the words simply would not come, she shook her head once, twice, as she slowly pushed herself to her feet once more. “Y-You’re flattering me,” she whispered, her cheeks once more taking on a rosy hue.
Zain’s chuckle deepened. “No, I’m really not,” he assured her, tamping down the desire to touch her by shoving his hands deep into his pockets instead. “Now tell me . . . What is your name?”
<<< 02: Inescapable Fate
04: Arrogance >>>
All the characters in The Fulcrum belong to me.
Any similarities to any person, alive or dead, real or implied, are coincidental.