Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Fulcrum: 01 Breakfast of Champions

~Chapter One~

~Breakfast of Champions~

~Ten Years Later~



“Why are you still alive?”


Zain Jericho glanced up from the business section of the newspaper to spare a cursory glance at the far end of the long table where his father sat, bathed in the morning sunshine flooding into the dining room through the floor-to-ceiling wall of windows behind him.  Casually lowering a delicate teacup onto the matching saucer, Heller Jericho’s gaze remained fixed on the man across the table from Zain, Jamison Rainsley.


True to form, Jamison broke into a good-natured grin and leaned back, casually crossing his ankles, his heels resting atop the table.  “Eh, we were just sparring,” he drawled, lifting a hand to gingerly probe the swollen red lump high on his right cheekbone.


Not surprisingly, Heller looked less than entertained by Jamison’s answer.  “You take fighting far too lightly, Zain.  There is no such thing as ‘just sparring’.”


“And you take it far too seriously,” Karis Jericho replied before Zain could as she breezed into the dining room.  “You’re not wearing your sword at the table, are you, my love?”


“Certainly not,” Heller replied, leaning to the side to tug his sword from his waistband without taking his attention off of whatever  article he was currently reading.  He handed the sheathed weapon to one of the two human servants standing behind him.


“Hmm,” she drawled, her unstated amusement adding a certain glow to her eyes.  “How rare to find you still at the breakfast table at this hour . . . Are you feeling all right, Heller?  The world’s not about to end, is it?”


Heller half-smiled at his wife—an expression that he reserved solely for her.  “I slept in this morning,” he replied.  “After all, someone kept me up half the night to appease her every whim, if you’ll so kindly recall . . .”


Her laugh sounded more akin to a purr.  “I do.  But I don’t recall hearing any complaints about it last night, either.”  Pursing her lips in a very pretty moue, Karis regarded her husband for a moment.   “Perhaps we should mark this date on the calendar.  The morning that the tai-youkai slept in . . . Surely grounds to declare a national holiday, don’t you think?”


Heller didn’t take the bait, but he did chuckle at his wife’s penchant for the melodramatic.


“Must we discuss your love life over breakfast?” Zain asked with a crooked eyebrow and a very dry tone of voice.


Karis laughed but merely winked at her son.


“Ah, my most esteemed Lady Jericho, beautiful, as always,” Jamison quipped, rising from his chair and intercepting the regal woman by the hand before making an obnoxious show of kissing the back of it with a breathy chuckle.


“Take care to watch yourself, or I’ll make sure to rectify my son’s gross oversight in not killing you when he had the opportunity,” Heller remarked dryly as he spared a glance up through his thick fringe of black bangs, reaching for the magazine he had been looking over before his interest in Jamison’s breathing status had kicked in.


“But I daresay that I’m rather boring, and I’d much rather watch Lady Jericho instead,” Jamison replied, apparently too stupid to realize that he was treading on dangerous ground when it came to Heller Jericho’s wife.


“You’re too old for me to feel bad if I were to kill you,” Heller added mildly.


“Oh, he’s harmless, and it’s nice for a woman to have lavish amounts of flattery heaped upon her every day,” Karis insisted, pulling her hand away from Jamison before continuing on her way to her husband’s side.  “Good morning, darling . . .” She kissed Heller on the cheek moments before her crystalline pink eyes lit on her son.  “Good morning, ungrateful first son.”


Zain almost smiled at Karis’ not-so-subtle attempt to make him feel guilty, and he refrained from pointing out that he was, in fact, the only son, too—for that matter, the only child, period.  Considering the reason why she was currently irritated at him, he figured that he could afford to let his darling mother pout for another few days—maybe a week.


Karis tugged slightly on the belt of the slinky pink satin robe, flipping the length of her strawberry blonde hair over her shoulder as she sauntered over to sit in the chair directly to Heller’s right.


Zain stood up and paused long enough to incline his head to both of his parents in turn.  “Thank you for breakfast,” he said.  “As always, your hospitality is impeccable.”


Karis smiled sweetly, opting to ignore the sandpaper tone of her son’s voice.  “Think about what we talked about, Zain,” she called after him.


He refrained from response since the subject was already spent, as far as he was concerned.


Jamison stood up, too, grabbing a fluffy croissant from the basket in the middle of the table and casting Karis a wink and a grin.  “As always, thank you for your generosity,” he said moments before jamming one end of the croissant into his mouth and following Zain out of the room.  “You ought to consider moving back home permanently,” Jamison burbled before swallowing.


“Why would I do that?” he asked.  “So she can give me even more names of ‘eligible young ladies’?”  He snorted—a rather uncharacteristic sound, coming from him.  “No, thank you.”


Jamison wrinkled his nose and waved a hand in dismissal.  “No, because seeing your mama in the morning is worth it,” he pointed out, obviously referring to Karis’ deplorable habit of taking her breakfast in one of her many tiny robes that barely covered anything.


“Did your mother breastfeed you?” Jamison went on in an entirely conversational tone.


Zain narrowed his eyes, pausing mid-step, then shook his head as he moved on.  “I cannot say that I’ve ever asked about that,” he replied, “but you have been around my parents long enough to know that the odds of that happening were not good.  Besides, she’s very proud of the fact that she never, ever had to so much as touch a diaper, so I highly doubt she did anything as base as breastfeeding.  Now, shall I kill you before or after that mental image fades from my brain?”


Jamison laughed.  “I love staring at your mother,” he said with a deep, dreamy sigh.


That earned him a rather droll look though Zain didn’t falter in his gait.  “The key words there being ‘my’ and ‘mother’,” he reminded his friend.


Jamison grinned.  “Oh, come on . . . I’ll let you stare at my mother, if you want.”


Zain shook his head, mostly because Jamison’s mother would be better described as a handsome woman than a centerfold candidate.  It was a sad but true fact that Jamison’s father was far prettier than his darling wife—a trait that Jamison had also inherited and loved to exploit.  “I’ll pass, thanks,” he said, taking his sword from the maid that hurried forward before he could step out of the grand mansion that his parents called home.


“Too much woman for you, right?” Jamison quipped, unconsciously batting his eyes at the maid as he accepted his weapon.  He flirted so much and so often that most of the time, Zain was pretty certain that Jamison wasn’t even aware that he was doing it.  It could be quite annoying, especially when Zain wasn’t in the mood for all of the attention that Jamison so effortlessly drew.  But they’d been friends for years, ever since they were children—one of Zain’s only real friends—his best friend—even if Jamison had a habit of driving him damn near crazy.


“Um . . . yes,” Zain stated flatly as the two stepped out onto the wide stone porch.  Blinking quickly while his eyes struggled to adjust to the overwhelming brightness of the summer sun, Zain paused before loping down the steps and onto the flagstone path.


Jamison chuckled and waved what was left of the croissant in the air.  “It’s a good thing my sister didn’t take after her, right?  I mean, I’m pretty sure we’re going to have to pay someone to marry her, as it is.  Could you imagine if she looked like Mother?”


“You love your mother,” Zain pointed out.  “You think she’s a goddess.”


“I do love my mother, and she is a goddess,” Jamison agreed.  “She’s a wonderful woman.  She’s just not drop-dead gorgeous like yours is . . .”


“And there’s nothing wrong with Seline,” Zain went on, this time, referring to Jamison’s darling younger sister.  “That is, as long as you’ve broken her of that nasty habit of hers of trying to set people on fire.”


“Yeah, well, there’s nothing right with her, either.  Besides, you didn’t have to grow up with her,” Jamison insisted.  “I knew you’d get that dig in there somewhere . . . if you hadn’t forgotten, that is.”


That earned Jamison a marked look.  As if he’d forget something as important as that . . . But since that incident had happened almost fifteen years ago, he rather figured that she had to have grown up a little since then—at least, enough so that she’d likely stopped trying to set anyone outside of her immediate family ablaze.  Or she’d have developed better aim by now, anyway . . .


Of course, she’d sworn it was an accident at the time.  She said she was practicing lighting the candles that were sitting on the floor nearby—not near enough to actually set him on fire, though.  No, she had gotten mad because Jamison wasn’t paying attention to her, so she’d sent her flames at him.  Unfortunately, they’d hit the hem of Zain’s pants instead, and, well . . . Yeah.


Jamison sighed as he yanked open the passenger side door of Zain’s Jaguar.  “I can’t believe they made you come all the way out here just to bark at you about marriage.”


Taking his time in fiddling with the seat belt, Zain frowned.  Being called home for the lecture on his responsibilities was becoming a more and more frequent occurrence in the last year or two, and normally, it wasn’t a big deal: listen to Karis drop hints about eligible women she knew of, sit through twenty minutes or so of Heller’s insistence that he didn’t need to love someone to produce a suitable heir; that sort of thing.  Funny thing, really, coming from the one man who had taken three wives before he’d bothered to produce his heir . . .


This time had been different, though . . .


There’s been some unrest amongst youkai in the southern region,” Heller said as he leaned back in his desk chair and pinned Zain with a calculating look.  “Seems there’s been some talk of challenges, though no one has actually dared to step forward and issue a real one.”


As if they really would,” Zain scoffed, slipping into a lavishly stuffed leather chair beside the sofa in Heller’s office.  “They wouldn’t dare.”


It’s entirely possible that they could,” Heller pointed out reasonably, almost philosophically, tapping the long, tapered claws of his right hand on the arm of the sofa while taking care not to puncture the fabric.


That would certainly be foolish.”


Perhaps.  Still, I would like to preserve the peace, if at all possible.  That’s the more politically correct thing to do, don’t you think?” Heller mused.


Zain frowned.  There was something strange about his father’s tone of voice, almost as though he were reluctant to give voice to whatever he had on his mind.  “Is that really an issue, Father?  It’s not like we really need allies to preserve our family’s prominence.”


Be that as it may, I’d rather not have to resort to violence—not on this matter, anyway.”


That statement earned him a droll stare from his son.  “That goes against our very nature, doesn’t it?


Heller broke into an enigmatic little grin that somehow seemed more predatory than it should have been.  “Perhaps, but . . .”


But . . .?


But . . . I think it’s bad form to kill off all my enemies—especially when one of them is in charge of that region,” Heller replied carefully—too carefully.  Rising from the sofa, he strode across the floor to the sideboard, taking his sweet time in pouring himself a snifter of brandy.


Uriah Marner would not dare betray you,” Zain insisted.


Flicking a long lock of jet black hair over his shoulder, Heller slowly turned to face his son, casually lifting the brandy to his lips.  “I would not say that.  It’s not uncommon when greed overpowers reason.”


Zain digested that for a moment.  Something about the entire conversation seemed odd to him, unsettling, as if there were something that he ought to know but couldn’t yet figure out.  As a rule, Zain wasn’t the kind who took well to feeling as though he was being underestimated, and that was almost enough to goad his temper.  “Do you wish for me to assess the situation there for myself or is there something else I’m missing?” he asked tightly.


Heller seemed to ponder his son’s question for several seconds.  Suddenly, though, he shook himself and broke into another of those smiles that didn’t reach his eyes.  “You know, I understand that Marner’s daughter is currently staying at their estate nearby.  Spending the summer there with her mother—shopping or something like that.  Your mother even mentioned inviting them to dinner sometime soon . . .”






The soft click of the metronome reverberated through the room with a soothing, if not slightly melancholic, sound.  The sunlight filtered through the window, casting a hazy brightness over everything, lending an almost ghostly glow to the objects that surrounded her.  Satins and lace, silks and tulle . . . “A lady’s chambers must always be soft and soothing, just like the lady herself,” her mother was so fond of saying . . .


Lilies perfumed the air filtering through the open windows, wrapping their fragrance into the very essence of every breath she drew.  It was as painful as it was comforting, quieting the ache that never quite went away and tearing the wound wide open once more, over and over again with every inhalation, every expulsion of breath.  Surrounded by things both foreign and familiar: things she’d brought with her, things that she’d found that just made her remember an insular moment, a fleeting feeling . . .


It was stifling.


Deep blue eyes, staring at the keys of the white baby grand piano, she had no idea just how long she’d been sitting there, lost in thoughts that drifted into and out of her mind as gently as a spring breeze: the calm before the storm.


For some reason, that image amused her, though not in the truest sense of the word.  No, there was an edge to it, almost a bitterness, and it frightened her.  Just when had she started to resent her life?  Surely there wasn’t a time or a date, nothing as concrete as that.  From the time she could remember and likely before, her whole world had been dictated to her.  She’d never thought to question it; not until . . .


No matter what, you are responsible for your own happiness.  Search for it because it isn’t something you will get from whoever becomes future husband—not from him, not from your father, and, as much as you adore him, not from your brother, either . . .”


But you’re happy with Father . . .”


A heavy sigh, racked with pain, trembling with emotion as a frail hand reached out to touch hers.  “I am content with your father,” she corrected with a gentle smile tinged by tears that stood in her eyes, brightening her gaze, but would not fall.  “The happiness I have been afforded has always come from you and your brother.”


Content but not happy?  Just what did that mean . . .?


Countless memories, linked together with no real coherence, flickered to life: some of them slipping away before they had a chance to register in her mind while others congealed and blossomed, lingering for a moment, a heartbeat, before withering away.  Standing in the doorway of her father’s study while he diligently worked, looking over files, reading through reports . . . sitting by her mother’s feet while she hummed under her breath, painting pictures that oftentimes made no real sense at all . . . chasing her brother in the garden while he humored her during precious and brief moments of escape . . . Yet every isolated memory seemed to lack something—something important—something that she simply could not resolve . . .


The trill of a cell phone cut through her bleak musings, and with a start, she glanced at the device almost hesitantly, as though she might be afraid of whomever was intruding on her solitude.  The name that registered on the caller ID, however, drew a wan smile from her, and as quickly as those feelings of reticence had come, they disappeared, too.




A soft, masculine chuckle greeted her, reaching across the miles and miles that separated them, and for just a moment, she felt the familiarity, the safety of the one voice she adored.  “Hello, yourself.  How’s life at the Conservatory?”


“It’s . . . It’s good,” she lied, hoping that he couldn’t hear the breathlessness in her voice.  “I was . . . I was just practicing . . .”


“Good.  Why don’t you put me on speaker and play something for me?”


She bit her lip and frowned down at the piano keyboard as the sense of comfort abandoned her once more.  “Oh, sorry, I . . . I was just finished,” she said, wondering if he could hear the tremor in her tone.


“I’m going to be in Chicago next week,” he went on.  “Think you can take time out of your busy schedule to humor your one and only brother?”


For some reason, his innocent request unleashed a new pain deep within her chest, and she had to struggle to keep her breathing even, had to swallow a few times before she could even begin to form words.  “I-I don’t think . . . I mean, I have to practice for the exam recitals . . .”


That soft chuckle once more.  “I don’t want to interrupt those,” he agreed.  “I’ll just stop by long enough to say hello and make sure you look well.  How’s that?”


“You really needn’t go out of your way,” she blurted, wincing inwardly.  “I’m sure you’ll be busy, and—”


“Kendall, how many times do I have to tell you, seeing you is never a bother.  In fact, it’s something I look forward to.”   Then he sighed.  “Sorry to cut this short, but I’m expected in a conference, so I’ve got to run.”


“Okay,” she replied, hating the surge of welcome relief that she felt.


“Study hard.”


Staring at the cell phone in her hand for a minute after the connection had ended, Kendall Farington pressed her lips together in a tight line.  It had been two years since she’d last seen Tucker.  The last time had been at her mother’s funeral, and as much as she adored her older brother, if she were to be completely honest with herself, she’d have to admit that she was both thrilled . . . as well as dreading the meeting with every fiber of her being.



<<< Prologue

02: Inescapable Fate >>>


All the characters in The Fulcrum belong to me.
Any similarities to any person, alive or dead, real or implied, are coincidental.


posted by Sueric at 12:10 am  

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