Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Fulcrum: 10 Carefree

~Chapter Ten~




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.”


“Could I?”


The laughter died away, but he still seemed amused.  “Yes.  In fact, I think you should.”


 <<< 09: Adventurous



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 12:17 am  

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Fulcrum: 09 Adventurous

~Chapter Nine~




“And you had dinner with him?”


Kendall stifled a sigh and nodded, avoiding Mimi’s gaze as the latter sat in a round, hanging wicker basket chair, suspended from the ceiling and draped with yards and yards of sheer white gauzy fabric.


Mimi looked entirely crestfallen, but then she smiled, albeit wanly.  “I’m so jealous right now, it isn’t even funny,” she admitted.  “Tell me you had a good time.”


“I had a good time,” Kendall admitted, settling into a thickly cushioned chair across from her best friend.


She hadn’t actually meant to bring up her dinner with Zain Jericho.  The last thing she’d wanted to do was to rub Mimi’s nose in it, as it were.  As fate would have it, though, Mimi had spotted the flowers right away, and from that point on, it was just a matter of time before the cat was out of the bag.  Mimi, true to form, had been both thrilled as well as a little envious.


“Where did he take you?” Mimi demanded, leaning forward slightly as her keen sense of curiosity took over.


“The Hightower,” Kendall said, breaking into a small smile as she propped her heel on the chair cushion and wrapped her arms around her knee.  “It was fantastic, and there was even a private balcony that overlooked the lake . . . We ate dessert outside.”


Mimi heaved a dramatic sigh and smashed her hands over her heart, a little squeal of delight slipping from her.  “And he was a perfect gentleman, right?  Did he give you his jacket?  I mean, it was a little chilly last night . . .”


Despite the lingering worries that had plagued her since her father’s departure, Kendall couldn’t help but to laugh.  “Yes, he was a gentleman; no, he didn’t give me his jacket because it wasn’t really that cold, surprisingly.  I guess that we were shielded from the wind for the most part.  The breeze was nice, though.”


Mimi digested that in silence, her expression almost dreamy as she flopped backward against the pillow-like cushions stared off into space.  She was probably trying to picture the whole thing in her head.  “And what did you do after dinner?  Did he bring you straight home?”


“No . . . We went for a walk on the beach.  He said that they own the stretch of it beside the complex.”


“Oh, that sounds romantic,” Mimi sighed.  She indulged in whatever she was thinking for another moment before sitting up straight, pinning Kendall with a knowing stare.  “So . . .?”


Kendall blinked.  “So, what?” she prompted when Mimi gestured impatiently for more information.


Mimi rolled her eyes but giggled.  “So are the two of you officially dating now?”


The brief reprieve that Kendall had been enjoying shattered like a glass on the marble floor.  Shifting her gaze out of the windows she shrugged.  “No,” she said in what she hoped was a casual tone of voice.  “In fact, I don’t think I’ll be seeing him again.”


“Why not?” Mimi demanded.  For a moment, she looked entirely shocked, but then, she frowned.  “This isn’t because of me, is it?” she asked, shaking her head to reinforce her words.  “Kendall, I was just a little girl, and you can’t really think that I ever actually believed that I—”


“It’s not that,” Kendall broke in, forcing another smile for Mimi’s benefit.  “It just so happens my father told me that he’s arranged my marriage.”


She was reasonably proud of the way her voice held steady, giving away nothing of the turbulent emotions that still tied her stomach in knots.  Too bad Mimi knew her far too well to buy into her façade.  “Oh, that’s . . .” Trailing off, Mimi seemed to be searching for the right word to describe her thoughts.  Suddenly, though, she gasped, sitting up a little straighter as she pointed a finger at Kendall.  “Tell him!  Tell your father about the Fourth!” she blurted, her voice raising an octave in her excitement.  “Tell him that you’ve already been on a date with him and everything!  I mean, come on!  You’re a general’s daughter, for God’s sake, right?  So you’d be perfect for him, and, let’s face it, no matter who your father’s chosen, he cannot possibly hold a candle to the future tai-youkai!”


Shaking her head, Kendall struggled to hold onto her nonchalance.  “I can’t,” she insisted.  “Besides, even if I could—even if Father did raise the issue with the Third, don’t you think that the Fourth might think the whole thing was just some kind of ploy?  Some kind of marriage trap?”  Shaking her head a little more forcefully, Kendall pinned Mimi with a stubborn look.  “It wouldn’t be right.”


Mimi snorted.  “And it’s all right to marry some guy you’ve never met?  Some guy you don’t care a thing for?  How is that fair?”


“It’s not about ‘fair’,” Kendall insisted, though in her own ears, her voice sounded tired.  “I-If we don’t suit, Father . . .”


She couldn’t bring herself to say the rest of the thought out loud because she wasn’t entirely sure that she believed it herself.  If she told him that she simply couldn’t marry him, what then?  Would Titus listen to her?  Would he call off the engagement?  Or would he discount whatever she had to say, chalk it up to her reluctance to get married at all?


“Who is it?” Mimi asked in a much gentler tone.


“William Marner,” Kendall replied.  Then she laughed—a harsh, almost hysterical sound—as she covered her mouth and fiercely tried to bite it back.  “Maybe Father’s right.  Maybe I’m worried about nothing.”


“M . . . Maybe,” Mimi drawled slowly, sounding anything but positive.  “I mean, my brother knows him from the academy, I think, and he never said anything bad about him . . .” Nibbling at her bottom lip, she trailed off as her gaze turned a bit distant for a moment.  Then she shook her head, as though willing away whatever thoughts she’d just had, and she smiled.  “Don’t worry about it, Kendall.  I . . . I know that’s easier said than done, but . . .”  Glancing at her watch, Mimi bit her lip and cast her another fretful glance.


Forcing yet another smile, Kendall sighed, tucking a few errant strands of hair behind her ear.  “It’s all right,” she reassured her friend.  “Now you’d better hurry or you’re going to be late for dinner with your parents.”


“I can call them, tell them that you need me,” Mimi offered.


“No, don’t you dare,” Kendall insisted.  “Your parents don’t visit you very often, and I’m fine . . . just really tired.  I think I’ll just take a hot bath and go to bed early.”


Mimi didn’t look convinced, but she knew better than anyone that once Kendall made up her mind, it was pretty near impossible to change it.


Rolling her eyes, Kendall stood and rounded the coffee table to grasp Mimi’s hands and tug her to her feet.  “Go,” she said, leaving no room for argument in her tone.  “Have fun.  Give your mother a hug and kiss for me.”


Heaving a sigh meant to state her protest, Mimi quickly reached out to hug Kendall.  “Okay, but promise me that you’ll call me if you need me.”


“I promise,” Kendall vowed.


Following Mimi out of the sun room and through the apartment, she opened the door and held it for Mimi, who spared a moment to stare hard at her before she finally gave in with another sigh and left.


Kendall closed the door and leaned back against it.  She understood Mimi’s feelings, and she was grateful, too.  That didn’t really make it any easier to deal with.  The last thing she wanted or needed was for Mimi to feel sorry for her, especially when Kendall was so close to doing that herself already.


A curt knock on the door behind her wrung a little yelp from her as she hopped away and swung around, grasping her blouse over her heart.  For a split second, she thought that Mimi might have forgotten something, but no.  Even through the heavy metal door, she could sense it—his aura.  But why . . .?


“Kendall?  Open the door.”


Wincing at his muffled voice and the hint of worry underlying his tone, Kendall reached for the handle, but jerked her hand back before she could turn the knob.  No, it was better this way, right?  She didn’t dare open the door.


Not even for Zain Jericho.


Especially not for Zain Jericho . . .


Willing herself to step back, Kendall made herself walk away, heaving a quiet sigh as she headed for the kitchen.  With a shaking hand, she filled a glass with water and gulped it down in an entirely unladylike fashion before refilling it again and slugging it back, too.  Then she set the glass upside down on a clean towel and gripped the edge of the counter tight, closing her eyes, breathing deep as her nerves slowly quieted.


It was entirely unfair, wasn’t it?  For the first time in her life, she’d met someone that made her want to try something different, something daring, and yet there was nothing she could do about it.  If her whole life was going to be dictated to her just like that, what was the point to it?  Was she no more than a bargaining chip to be played when the time was right . . .?


Letting go of the counter with a tired sigh, Kendall turned on the water tap once more to splash her face and fumbled with the drawer beside her until she grabbed a kitchen towel.


Dabbing at her face, she shuffled out of the kitchen and into the living room, her gaze catching on the piano.  Ordinarily, she would sit down, play for hours, forget the thoughts that plagued her mind.  This time, however . . . There was no solace to be found, not there.


“So what, exactly, did your father have to say to you?”


Smothering a gasp, Kendall swung around, only to find him leaning in the doorway of the morning room, arms crossed over his chest as he lounged against the frame, hair glowing almost bluish in the brightness of the sunshine pouring through the bank of windows behind him, his features carefully blanked, and when her eyes met his, she couldn’t look away.  Glowing, they were, those eyes, staring at her as though he could see straight into her mind, and in the silence, he dared her to lie.


“My . . . my lord . . .”






Zain wasn’t sure how long he stood there in the archway, conducting the silent war of wills with the woman who so defiantly tried to stand her ground before him.  He’d seen grown men cower long before she finally heaved a sigh, a trembling hand reaching up to rub her face.  Delicate and simple, yet it was deceptive, and he knew that, too.  No, maybe not ‘simple’ . . . That wasn’t a good way to describe her.  He’d met enough women to know how many of them so loosely held their integrity, how easily they’d do or say things that they thought that he wanted to hear.  She was different, Kendall Farington, and maybe that was the real reason why he was so drawn to her . . .


The moments stretched out between them; he waited for her to speak, and maybe she was doing the same.  In the end, she was the one who finally broke the silence that had fallen, her voice soft and sad and a little distant.  “H-How did you—?”


“Through the window, of course,” he interrupted, jerking his head once to indicate the room from which he had entered.


He saw her gaze flicker from him to the room beyond and back again.  The windows were open, yes, but the screens should have prevented him from being able to access them.  Should have, but didn’t.  A moment of curiosity, and then a little half-nod when she realized how he’d done it.  “Your aethereal form,” she concluded in a tone that indicated that she ought to have realized that he should be fully capable of such a thing before.


“You’re ignoring my question,” he reminded her, unwilling to take his eyes off of her.


“It’s not important,” she muttered, turning away from him, putting a little more distance between them.


“Important enough for you to cancel your plans with me,” he pointed out.  “Important enough for you not to answer the door when I knocked.”  When she still offered no explanation, Zain shrugged away from the wall, stuffing his hands into his pockets as he slowly wandered toward her.  She didn’t retreat again, but she looked like she might well want to, and Zain had to wonder why.  “You don’t want to tell me.”


She sighed, more of a breath than a real sound, wrapping her arms tightly over her stomach as her gaze skittered away.  Clad in a simple white dress that struck him as being just a little old fashioned, she seemed to blend in with her surroundings.  Everything in feminine shades of whites and off-whites, touches of pinks, dusty rose.  Even the white lacquered baby grand piano with the soft rose colored velvet cushion . . . Made just for her?  Probably.


And yet, it struck him, just how very out of place she seemed, like a child playing dress-up in her mother’s clothes; like a flower struggling to grow through a crack in the pavement.  These things her seemed to compose the perfect surroundings, and still, there was a stilted comfort to it all, a contrived sort of feel, as though she had been selecting the things in her own home more for how it might appear to someone else and not at all what she might want for herself . . .


Drawing a deep breath as he shifted his gaze back to the woman in question once more, he frowned when it became apparent that she was not going to offer any kind of explanation.  “You still don’t want to tell me about it?”


“I just . . . It’s really nothing,” she insisted.


He nodded.  Maybe he didn’t know exactly why she was acting so strangely, but that didn’t really matter, and as much as he might want to know the reason for it, the desire to reassure her was far stronger.  He supposed that if he were to stop and ask himself just why that might be, the answer might well surprise him, but, given the situation, he didn’t stop to take the time to analyze it all.


It was bad enough when he’d knocked on her door, heard her soft gasp on the other side, bad enough when he’d sensed the retreat of her youki.  A strange sort of irritation had taken hold of him then, and that was the reason he’d done something as rash as dissolve his body to fly in through her window.  Even through the door, he’d sensed it, her absolute desolation, and he wasn’t sure if he hated the idea that she was willing to suffer alone or if there really wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.


In the end, he’d simply reacted on instinct—a foreign sense of her upset that had goaded him into doing what he’d done, and now, there he was, but the problem remained: how could he possibly bridge the gap that seemed as wide as the sea that had somehow managed to open up between them in the space of a few hours . . .?


“Okay,” he agreed, conceding more to her than he ever had to anyone else before.  Careful to keep his movements slow, lest she should run—why he thought that she might, he wasn’t sure, but for some reason, he knew that he was treading on very dangerous ground—he sat on the sofa, leaning forward, steepling his fingers between his knees.  “I’ll ask you something else, then.”


She shot him a cursory glance, her expression composed, but the wild look in her eyes couldn’t be hidden.  “All right . . .”


“Did you have a good time last night?  I thought you did, but . . . was I wrong?”


She seemed surprised and confused by his question in turns, but she bit her lip and slowly nodded.  She looked like her answer had cost her dearly, and he had to wonder why that was.  “N-No, it’s not that,” she whispered.  “I . . . I did.  Being with you . . .”


He smiled just a little.  “Good.  So did I.”


She didn’t look like she quite believed him, but the brightness in her gaze was enough to encourage him.  “It’s nice of you to say,”  she replied with a shake of her head. “I know I wasn’t exactly the best company last night.”


“Why?  Because you didn’t giggle and flirt and fall all over me?  Thanks, but I’ve had quite enough of that lately myself.”  Breaking into a soft chuckle, he pushed himself to his feet again.  “You’re the first woman I’ve met who has truly acted like she was paying attention to me, not simply playing a game of ‘let’s catch the next tai-youkai’.”


A strange sort of expression flickered over her face, but was gone before he had a chance to discern it.  Then she smiled, albeit wanly.  “I would guess that you are quite the catch.”


He blinked for a moment as it dawned on him that she was teasing him.  “Am I?” he countered mildly.  “If that’s the case, then I would guess that you won’t mind this . . .”


She tried to pull away when he grasped her hand and tugged her toward the door.  Suddenly, though, she giggled, and immediately smashed her free hand over her mouth to stifle the sound.  “I . . . I shouldn’t . . .” she protested, giving her arm another tug.


He held on tightly, leading her out of the apartment.  “You want to do something you’ve never done before, don’t you?” he asked over his shoulder as she leaned to the side to snag her purse off the table near the door.


“Like what?” she asked, the smile on her face timid yet bright.  There was a breathless quality in her voice that was wholly endearing, and she couldn’t hide the sparkle that lit her gaze.


“You’ll see,” he teased, stopping long enough to allow her to lock her door before tugging her toward the stairwell.  He paused long enough to cast her a somewhat apologetic glance.  “You don’t mind, do you?  I cannot abide elevators.”


“So the future tai-youkai has a weakness?” she replied.  “Elevators, huh?”


He snorted and rolled his eyes.  “I wouldn’t call it a weakness.  I simply choose not to use them if I can help it—the same with escalators.”


“And if you don’t have the choice?”


“I can use them,” he reiterated as they descended the stairs, “but I prefer not to.”


“You sound like my brother,” she concluded with a little shrug.  “He hates them, too.”


Zain snorted before he could stop himself.


“You know my brother?”


He considered lying for about ten seconds before he gave up on that idea.  After all, if she ever mentioned him to said-brother, then it would become blatantly obvious, just what he really did think.  “He and I have never seen eye-to-eye,” Zain replied, choosing his words carefully.


She seemed intrigued by his statement, however.  “Is that right?  How do you know him?”


“We were both at the academy at the same time,” Zain said.  “If he challenged me once, he did so a hundred times over the years.”


He could feel her eyes on him but didn’t turn to verify it.  “Challenged you?  But I thought—”


“You like him, don’t you?  Your brother?  I defeated him, but I didn’t kill him—and now, I’m rather glad I let him live since you actually do seem to like him, so if I had killed him back then, I’m pretty sure that your opinion of me wouldn’t be very favorable, now would it?”


She rolled her eyes.  “You say that as though it was a foregone conclusion that you’d win in a real fight against him,” she chided.  “I’ll have you know that Tucker isn’t nearly the pushover you make him out to be.”


Zain snorted loudly and shoved the door at the bottom of the stairwell open a little harder than he’d intended.  “And you make it sound like you doubt my ability to fight,” he rebutted.


“Well, I don’t doubt that you can,” she said slowly, thoughtfully, “but I’ve never seen you fight—and I have seen Tucker.”


Biting his tongue on the scathing reply that formed in his head, Zain tamped down the urge to let Kendall know exactly what he thought of her statement.


Beat me, indeed,’ he scoffed.


Yes, well, put your bruised ego away for a moment, Zain, and look at the bigger picture,’ his youkai-voice remarked.


Oh?  And what would that bigger picture be?


His youkai chuckled, as though Zain had said something extremely amusing.  ‘Does it really matter?  You’ve at least accomplished one thing, you know.’


Zain grunted unintelligibly as he pulled the front door open and held it for her to pass through.  ‘What’s that?


His youkai sighed though the amusement didn’t wane.  ‘She’s smiling, Zain.’


He blinked and glanced at Kendall, only to find that she was, indeed, smiling, and this time, it was a real smile—one that made the entire conversation worthwhile, even if he still smarted from her insinuation that her brother could defeat him.  But he stared at her for another minute before letting out a little sigh and falling into step beside her.


So she is . . .’ he mused, sneaking another surreptitious glance at her.  ‘So she is.’


 <<< 08: Expectations

10: Carefree >>>



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 12:16 am  

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Fulcrum: 08 Expectations

~Chapter Eight~




Kendall sat on the edge of the sofa, ankles crossed and pushed back against the chair, hands clasped in her lap so tightly that her knuckles were leeched white while she worried at her bottom lip and stared at the floor.  Her heart beat so rapidly that it felt like it was trying to leap out of her chest as she tried not to fidget.


Titus Farington strode across the floor and back, thin leather shoes barely making a sound against the floor.  Platinum blonde hair cropped short, unlike most youkai, he pushed his wire rimmed glasses up his nose with a bent index finger before digging his hands into his pockets of his expensively tailored suit once more.  He only actually needed them for reading, but Kendall couldn’t recall ever having seen him without them, either.  Drawing himself up to his full height, just over six feet tall, he looked like he was readying himself for commanding the troops rather than trying for a comfortable visit with his daughter.


They’d already exchanged the perfunctory niceties, and it seemed like Titus might be trying to decide whether or not to state the real reason for his visit or if a few more minutes of stilted light conversation were in order first.


“Your performance last night was very nice,” Titus said, breaking the uncomfortable silence that had fallen.


Kendall tried to force a smile.  It felt more like a grimace, but Titus didn’t seem to notice.  “Thank you.”


“I looked for you afterward, but no one seemed to know where you’d gone,” he went on.


“I . . . I had a headache,” she replied.  She wasn’t sure why, but for some reason, she didn’t want to tell him about her impromptu dinner date, “and I was exhausted from rehearsing.”


He seemed to accept her excuse, and that was good enough.  She just wished he’d get on with it before the prophetic headache became a reality.


Offering her a tight little smile, Titus stopped and turned to face her, and not for the first time, she felt as though he were looking right through her, not really seeing her, at all.  “Why don’t you change, and I’ll take you out to lunch?”


Glancing down at the very simple peach dress she was wearing, Kendall gritted her teeth.  Nothing outrageous, absolutely outside of the bounds of propriety, but it was just another illustration of the things that her father decreed that she was to do without question.  Instead, she rubbed her forehead.  “I . . . I had a late breakfast,” she said, which wasn’t entirely untrue.  She had actually gotten up later than she normally did, probably since she had stayed out later than she usually did, too.  Couple that with the idea that she hadn’t actually gotten any sleep the night before, and it wasn’t any real surprise to her that she had slept till nearly ten o’clock.  That she’d only been able to choke down a piece of dry toast with a bottle of water as her anxiety rose was another matter, entirely.


Titus nodded slowly.  Was it her imagination, or did he seem rather relieved that she was declining his offer . . .?


Sinking down on a nearby chair, Titus regarded her for long moments before he finally deigned to speak again.  Clearing his throat, he leaned forward just a little.  “I suppose I should get down to the reason I’m here,” he finally said.


Kendall only nodded as the fist-sized lump in her throat swelled even larger.


“I’ve accepted an offer of marriage on your behalf,” Titus said.  She could tell from his tone that he expected her to be pleased by it.  She wasn’t, but she ducked her chin a little lower so that he couldn’t see the upset that had to be quite visible on her face.  “William Marner, Uriah Marner’s son and the heir to the southern district, assuming that the Third accepts him, and I don’t see why he wouldn’t.  That aside, he’s independently wealthy since he’s bought out the Langston Group down in Mississippi, and I hear that he is quite strong.  Might even be strong enough to give the Fourth a run for his money, if he had a mind to.”  He paused and chuckled, as though the very thought of William Marner challenging the Fourth amused him.  It certainly didn’t amuse Kendall, not in the least.  If anything, the mere mention of the Fourth—of him—set off another explosion somewhere deep down: a frantic, almost terrified feeling that had little to do with the idea of some imaginary challenge and everything to do with the idea that this decree would mean that she really could not see him again.  “All in all, he’s a good man—he’ll make a fine husband for you.”


Tell him!’ her youkai-voice hissed, an underlying sense of urgency adding a harshness to it that normally was not there.  ‘Tell him that you don’t want to marry someone you’ve never met!  Tell him about the Fourth!


“I-I-I don’t . . . I don’t think I’m ready to get married, Father,” she heard herself saying, whispering.  It was the first time in her life that she’d ever tried to gainsay him, that she’d ever challenged his edicts on any level, and it was frightening.  Clenching her hands tighter in her lap, she could feel herself quaking as she struggled to steel her resolve, to make him understand that she didn’t want any part of it.


Titus seemed surprised for all of ten seconds.  Then he laughed.  It wasn’t entirely unpleasant, no, but the unmistakable sense that he was simply humoring her grated on her nerves, just the same.  “Don’t be ridiculous, Kendall,” he said.  “I guess every woman is a little reluctant when she has yet to meet her future husband, but I assure you, you could not possibly do better than William.  He comes highly recommended.”


“I’m not even done with school,” she tried again.


“He knows.  He is more than happy to let you finish out the term.  We will announce your engagement formally at your graduation party.”


“But I . . . I haven’t even met him,” she argued weakly, feeling the edges of her resolve crumbling away.  It was ingrained in her, wasn’t it?  The unreasonable fear that she might displease him, that she really did not possess even a modicum of control over her own life, that she was nothing at all without this man, her father, making her choices for her, and that was the reason why she’d never tried to stand her ground against him before . . .


“You’ll meet him soon enough.”  Those words sounded in her head over and over, echoing like a voice lost in an abyss.  She had little doubt that he meant to reassure her, but to her, it sounded more like a death knell.  “You will join me for dinner tonight,” he went on, oblivious to the upset that Kendall was feeling.  “There’s someone else I’d like for you to meet.”


Trying to gather the last vestiges of her flagging courage was like trying to catch snowflakes, but she cleared her throat, dared to glance up at her father.  “I-I’m sorry,” she murmured.  “I’ve already made plans.”


“Cancel them,” he stated in a tone that left no room for argument.  “Whatever it is, I’m sure that you can do it some other time.  This is important.”


Her gaze skittered away as she twisted her fingers together on her lap.  “I’ve already met . . . her,” she said, unable to keep the anger that she’d tried to hide out of her voice.  “She was a . . . friend . . . of Mother’s . . .” The word nearly choked her, but somewhere deep down, she was perversely proud of herself for saying it out loud.


Titus seemed to be genuinely surprised that Kendall knew anything, but he sighed.  “She cared about your mother,” he said, censure heavy in his tone.


Did you sleep with her before Mother died?  Did it matter that Mother knew about the two of you?  Did you even care?


Those questions wouldn’t come out, but the outrage that rose inside her brought her to her feet, carried her across the floor, away from her father—out of his reach.  “If she cared about Mother, then she would have acted like she did,” Kendall countered.


“Don’t worry about things that are none of your concern,” Titus replied sharply, rapidly losing his patience when his daughter refused to try to see his side of things.


“You’re right,” she agreed tightly.  “It’s your concern, as you say, which is why I hardly think that I need to go to dinner with the two of you.  I’m sorry, Father, but as I’ve said, I already have plans.”


Titus stared at her for several moments, probably trying to decide whether or not he ought to push the subject.  He must have thought better of it, though, because he turned on his heel and resumed his pacing.  “We will be married next month, and you will come home for it.  Besides, that will be a good time for you to meet your new fiancé.”


“And if I don’t feel that he would be a good match?” she challenged quietly.


“We will cross that bridge if we come to it,” he said.  “You’re worried about nothing, Kendall.  Do you honestly believe that I would see you married to someone completely unsuitable?”


Kendall wandered over to the window, wrapped her arms over her stomach, stared outside at the bright blue sky.  “If you thought that it was best for me, you would—even if I don’t agree,” she said softly.


He was silent for a moment, but she didn’t miss his sigh.  He probably thought that she was simply being unreasonable, or maybe he believed that she was disagreeing simply because of her displeasure over his new girlfriend.  Bracing herself for him to press the issue, she drew a deep breath and held it.


“Who is this?”


Turning her head far enough to see what he might be talking about, Kendall frowned.  Standing with his back toward her, she couldn’t actually see what he was looking at, though he seemed to be holding something.  “Who is who?”


He glanced over his shoulder at her, a marked scowl twisting his features.  “This ‘Z’.”


For some reason, her father’s question caught her off guard, and she blinked in sudden confusion, and when she finally did open her mouth to answer him, it was with an unreasonable sense of panic, like she honestly believed that the truth would only exacerbate the given situation.  Then again, remembering her father’s strange statement about William Marner and his potential to beat the Fourth . . .? It made her uneasy, even if she couldn’t rightfully say why.  “It . . . Just a . . . a friend,” she heard herself saying.


He stared at her for another moment before turning his attention back to the card once more.  “It looks like a man’s handwriting,” he said.


“He’s just a fellow pianist,” she insisted, hoping that she managed to inflict just enough nonchalance into her voice to put her father off.


“A fellow pianist,” Titus echoed, considering her answer.  Finally, he nodded and stuck the card back into the holder nestled in the bouquet.  Then he turned to face her once more.  “I need to be going,” he said, flicking his wrist, checking his watch.  “I will send you the agenda for the week of the wedding.”


Kendall nodded once but didn’t turn away from the window.


Titus stood still, like there was something else he wanted to say.  In the end, though, he strode over to the door and left without another word.


Only then did Kendall let out a deep breath, slumping forward, gripping the sill so hard that she could feel the tips of her claws digging into the weathered wood frame, eyes closing as her forehead touched the cool pane of glass.






“I’m sorry . . . I don’t think . . . I don’t think that it’s a good idea to meet with you.”


Zain frowned as he pushed himself out of the desk chair in favor of prowling around the room.  The phone in his hand groaned just enough to remind him to loosen his grip on it before it crumbled.  “Did something happen?” he asked, fighting to control the growl that rose low in his throat.  Whether it was brought on by Kendall’s insistence that she wanted to break their plans or because of the obvious tremor in her voice, he wasn’t sure and didn’t really have the time to dwell upon it at the moment, either.


She sighed: a lost kind of sound, a hopeless kind of sound.  “I just . . . I’m not really very good company at the moment,” she said.  “My father . . .”


Letting out a deep breath as he struggled for a sense of calm that he was far from feeling, Zain plopped down in a chair.  “It sounds like you could use some time out,” he told her.  “I’ll come get you.”


“It’s not that,” she said.  Why did it sound like she was very close to tears?  “It’s not fair to you, and I—”


“It can’t be that bad,” he insisted.  “Whatever it is . . . Didn’t you want to try something new today?”


“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I’m really sorry.”


The line went dead, and Zain snapped the phone closed as the repressed growl slipped out.


Just what the hell was going on over there, anyway?  She was entirely too happy last night when he’d finally taken her home.  The smile on her face, the brightness in her eyes . . . That had all been real, but she had mentioned earlier in the evening that her father was in town.  At the time, he’d thought that he had sensed an underlying reluctance when she’d said it, but she’d changed the subject quickly enough that he hadn’t really thought about it too much, either.  It didn’t really matter when something about Titus Farington’s visit had so obviously shaken her.


And if it’s a family issue, you need to let it alone,’ the voice of his youkai-blood remarked philosophically.


Maybe.  Maybe not.  It bothered him far more than it ought to, her upset.  It bothered him that someone might be directly responsible for it, for that matter.


So what do you think you’re going to do?  Find out where Farington is staying and demand that he tell you just what is going on?


He sighed, mostly because he wasn’t entirely above considering it.


Don’t be stupid.  Just stop and think for a minute.  If you want answers, maybe the person to ask is Kendall.’


Kendall . . .


Why did he think that she might not tell him?  If she was going to, she would have done so over the phone instead of ending the call as quickly as she could.


But he knew as well as he’d ever known anything that she’d felt it, too—that draw, that lure, that overwhelming urgency of just being together.  He knew she did.  There was something between them, and even if he didn’t yet know what it was, he did not doubt it, either, and damned if he didn’t want to know exactly what it was.


It just didn’t make sense.


The phone jarred him out of his thoughts, and he connected the call without looking to see who it was.




“Why do you sound like you’re considering killing someone?”


Gritting his teeth as he fought to tamp down the bitter rise of disappointment, Zain counted to ten before he deigned to answer.  “Not far wrong, Jamison.  What do you want?”


“Hmm . . . I was just calling to see if you were busy.”


“Not really,” Zain muttered.


“Is that right?  Then why don’t you come with me?  A friend of mine wanted to meet for drinks, but her cousin’s in town visiting.”


“Not interested,” Zain said, pushing himself to his feet and heading toward the door.


Jamison snorted indelicately.  “Let me guess: you’re working again, right?  You know, you need a break every now and then.  Working yourself to death is bad for you, and while there is something to be said for dedication, you’re well past that, if you want my opinion, and—”


“That’s not why,” Zain snapped.  “Shut the hell up, will you?”


Jamison whistled, long and low.  “Wow, you really don’t sound like yourself.  Did something happen?”


It was on the tip of Zain’s tongue to tell Jamison exactly where he could stuff it.  Then he rubbed his forehead and slowly shook his head.  “It’s nothing,” he lied.  Somehow, the idea of arming Jamison with the knowledge that a woman was the reason behind his current mood just did not appeal to him.


“Okay,” Jamison drawled in a skeptical tone, “but you know, sometimes it helps to talk about things.”


“Now you sound like a woman.”


“Yeah, I think that bit of advice came from my mother,” Jamison quipped.  “That’s how I know that it is sound, after all.”


“Drop it.”


Heaving a sigh, Jamison didn’t press the issue, much to Zain’s relief.  “All right; all right . . . but suppose you tell me where you disappeared to last night?  Though I can say that I was asked afterward if I knew the whereabouts of one Kendall Farington, too . . . Now, my educated guess is that the two of you were somewhere together, considering you took off right after her performance, and before you ask, no, I didn’t tell Titus that, either.”


“If you already know, then why are you asking?” Zain countered.


“Ah . . . so you were off somewhere together,” Jamison concluded.  “Are you going to tell me what you were doing?”


Zain uttered an exasperated sort of sigh.  “We were both hungry; I took her out to eat.  End of story.”


Jamison clucked his tongue.  “That’s all?  How boring!”




“Oh, be fair, Zain!  That girl is stunning, if you haven’t noticed, and, while I can buy the dinner idea, if you honestly try to tell me that that was all there was to it, I think I’ll have to give up on you permanently.  Just dinner?  You absconded with her from her own recital, thus robbing her of her chance to bask in the glory and praise that she should have received for it, and all you can say is that you took her to dinner?”


“That’s all I’m telling you,” Zain growled.  “If your only goal with this phone call was to annoy me, you’ve succeeded in spades.  Now if you’ll excuse me—”


“I’m rather relieved, if you want the truth,” Jamison went on, his tone taking on a more thoughtful spin.  “I was starting to wonder if you actually realized that women existed, at all.”


“Goodbye, Jamison,” Zain said, raising his voice just enough to be sure that his friend heard him properly.  Then he snapped his phone closed once more and dropped it onto the desk.  Sure, the idiot was his best friend.  Sometimes, however, Zain had to question exactly why that was.


But it doesn’t do a damn thing about our current dilemma,’ his youkai-voice pointed out.


Which is . . .?


The voice snorted indelicately.  ‘Which is, are we just going to sit here and let her get away?


Slumping lower in his chair, he let his head fall back, staring at the ceiling without really seeing a thing.  He supposed that was the million-dollar-question, wasn’t it?  Exactly what was he going to do?  To be completely objective, it wasn’t like he actually had that much effort invested in anything, and it stood to reason that he could and perhaps should just walk away from it all.  The things she’d said on the telephone were clear enough.  She didn’t want or need his interference—at least, that’s what she was trying to say to him, and whatever was bothering her, it was a family matter and therefore should be handled by the family.


Still, the sound of her words, the melancholy that she’d tried to hide haunted him, lingered in the back of his head even if he tried to ignore them.


From the time I can remember, every single thing has always been decided for me—my clothes, my schools, my lessons . . . even my friends, to an extent.  If they weren’t good enough . . . I came to the Conservatory because I thought . . .”


Because she’d thought that she could gain a little freedom, a little independence.


Don’t you understand it better than anyone?


Frowning as her softly uttered question spun around his brain, Zain tapped his claws against the arm of the chair, the dull thuds repetitious in the otherwise silent room.  Did he understand her feelings better than anyone?  He had to wonder because the structure, the strict guidance he’d received over the course of his life hadn’t bothered him nearly as much as it clearly did her, but some part of him could understand that, at least, to an extent.  If he stopped to consider it, he had to admit that it was true that women tended to live far more sheltered, far more restrained lives.  It wasn’t really something that he’d given much thought—at least, he hadn’t until now.


A vague memory of something that Jamison’s sister, Seline had once said ran through his head as his frown deepened.  At the time, she had tried to sneak in the back of his car when the two of them were heading back to the university after a short visit home.  When they’d found her, crouched behind the seat, she’s pouted at them, pleaded with them to take her with them.  Zain had let Jamison deal with her as he waited, leaning against the car while Jamison had coaxed Seline out of it.  “It’s not fair,” she’d said, crossing her arms over her chest stubbornly, her voice breaking as the first tears slipped down her cheeks.  “You guys get to do things—lots of things—and I have to stay here, learning nothing but stupid things: how to throw dinner parties and how to match fabrics . . . how to arrange flowers, and how to smile and nod and agree with everything that any of you men might say to me . . .”


Was that it?  Was that what Kendall was talking about, what she was trying to escape?  Everything that she had been taught was designed to groom her for a lifetime as a wife of a youkai nobleman—a life of ease and sometimes excess where true freedom was often bartered away at the cost of one’s innocence and the reward?  He’d met enough older women—jaded creatures who were always looking for something that they thought they needed and usually didn’t.  Those were the women who tried to fill the emptiness inside them with whatever vices they had available to them.


The thing was, Zain wasn’t sure that he could stand to sit back and watch while a girl like Kendall ended up that way, too . . .


 <<< 07: Moonlight

09: Adventurous >>>



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 12:15 am  

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Fulcrum: 07 Moonlight

~Chapter Seven~




“Is it not to your liking?”


Kendall gave a little start and shot Zain a nervous glance, offering him a nervous little smile that she hoped wasn’t nearly as thin as it felt.  “Oh, no, it’s wonderful,” she insisted, sticking a small bite of herb-roasted chicken breast into her mouth.  It really was perfect, just as beautiful as the restaurant where they sat—the Hightower, located at the top of the Jericho Corporation’s head office building, a five star establishment that overlooked the shores of Lake Michigan.


He had offered to call for reservations somewhere else, and she had little doubt that he would have problems getting into any of them, considering who his family was, but he had mentioned that the Hightower was one of the better establishments in the city, and to be honest, she’d always rather wondered what it would be like to have dinner there, anyway.


After they’d arrived, they were taken to the Jericho family’s private dining room, which was at least half the size of the rest of the place and came complete with its own private staff of waiters as well as a live piano player discreetly tucked off to the side and veiled in half-shadows.  The décor was lavish and undoubtedly very expensive in rich, dark shades—umbers and rich forest greens, golds and navy just shades above black—that were designed to enhance instead of overwhelm.


“They do rent out this room from time to time,” Zain admitted quietly as he glanced around.  “But if we call, they free it up for us.  We normally just use it if we have to entertain here in the city, and that doesn’t happen too often.”


He’d said it like it was par for course, and for someone like him, Kendall supposed it was.  “But your family lives here, don’t they?”


He shrugged offhandedly, bright orange eyes glowing brighter in the incandescence of the candle arrangement in the middle of the table.  “Yes . . . no . . .” He shook his head.  “They live just outside of the city.  I believe your father’s been there many times.”


“My father travels quite a bit on business,” Kendall admitted, gaze dropping away as she tried to forget that the man in question was currently in the city currently—as well as what had actually brought him here, too.


Zain didn’t comment on her quick reply, but she could feel his eyes on her, could feel the weight of his unasked questions, but whether he was unsure if she would answer or maybe he felt as though he had no right to pry, she didn’t know.


“These vegetables are very well done,” she went on, a false brightness entering her tone as she hoped that he didn’t remark upon her abrupt change in topics.  “Not too overcooked, not too heavily seasoned . . .”


“They are far more palatable than in other places I’ve dined,” he allowed.  She could sense a hint of amusement in the depths of his voice, though she wasn’t entirely sure why that would be.  “I must admit, however, I’ve never been a huge fan of vegetables.”


Kendall laughed suddenly, quietly, setting her fork and knife aside as she gave up her pretense of trying to eat.  “I’m sorry.  I guess I’m not very good at making small talk, am I?”


To her surprise, he chuckled: a deep, throaty sound, unexpectedly warm, almost intimate.  “I wouldn’t know,” he said simply.  “I’m not very good at it myself.”


Somehow, though, his comment was enough to loosen the invisible grip that had tightened around her stomach when she’d first heard her father’s voice over the telephone last night.  “That seems like a strange thing to say, given who you are,” she pointed out.


“Does it?” he countered mildly, reaching for a glass of wine, swirling the contents idly as a thoughtful sort of scowl surfaced on his features.  Kendall bit her lip, watching him while trying not to stare.  It was  a hard thing to do, all things considered.  There was a certain air of foreboding about him, a commanding sort of allusion in every movement he made, doubtless instilled in him through a lifetime of being raised as with the knowledge of his station.  It was worn as easily as a comfortable tee-shirt: a second skin, and she doubted very much that he even realized that he possessed it, at all.


Handsome, surely, and yet, she had to wonder if he even realized that much.  He didn’t strike her as the kind to pay any attention to that sort of thing.  If he did, then would he really be sitting here, having dinner with someone who wasn’t really that skilled at the subtle innuendo, the articulate little games that other girls seemed to understand without much effort at all?


And still . . .


Just beneath that highly refined surface, just below the self-confidence that almost bordered upon a certain arrogance, she could feel it, couldn’t she?  That restlessness that she knew well enough, that inner burn that was searching for something else, something just a little different—something more.  It was that part of him that, whether he sensed it himself or not, that had drawn her in, that had spoken to her in quiet whispers, and even though she had very little doubt that a great many found the man to be completely intimidating, she couldn’t say that she was scared of him despite her initial feeling that she really ought to be.


There was something in his gaze, something a little sad, a little lost, and though she couldn’t help but wonder if she weren’t simply imagining that, she was positive on some level that she was right on the money.  That was the reason that she’d accepted his offer to take her to dinner.  That was the reason that she had yet to dissolve into a puddle of raw nerves . . .


“You mean to tell me that I should be . . . what?  Good at everything, and all because I’m to be the future tai-youkai?” he challenged, but he seemed more amused than irritated.


“I would think that should better suit the image of the Fourth, my lord,” she quipped, unable to hide the little smile that tugged on her lips.


He chuckled again as a distinct trill raced up her spine and back down again, settling in a strange sort of tremor deep in her belly.  “I could have sworn that I told you my name,” he chided.


“Is that really appropriate?” she replied.


For the briefest of moments, he looked a little disgruntled, as though it really did bother him that she so adamantly refused to call him by name.  “And if I were to say that it offends me that you call me, ‘my lord’?”


Her smile faltered, and she ducked her chin.  “Then I would say that I apologize for offending you . . . my lord.”


Another breathy chuckle, all hints of irritation gone as quickly as it had come, and he slowly shook his head as he dropped his napkin on his plate and slowly got to his feet.  “I would think that a woman I’ve invited on a date would be more willing to address me by name,” he remarked.  He stepped around the table, stopped before her, and held out his hand.


She couldn’t help the flush that seeped into her skin at the allusion of intimacy.  “I-Is that what this is?” she mused, slowly lifting her gaze to meet his, even slower to slip her hand into his.  “A date . . .?”


He gently pulled her to her feet and led her over to the sliding glass doors that opened onto a private balcony.  The wind that hit them as they stepped outside ruffled his hair, tossing the midnight strands in a wanton frenzy.  “At the risk of being forward, I would like to think it is,” he said, lifting his chin, shifting his eyes upward as the light of the nearly full moon bathed his skin in a bluish hue—a shadow against a darker shadow—and only his eyes seemed to glow.  Was he staring at the few stars that dotted the sky so high above?  Was he looking for something in the vast expanse of indigo?  Was he seeing anything at all?


She wanted to see what it was that he saw, wanted to know just what was going through his mind.  The voice in the back of her mind whispered to her, reminding her that she really wasn’t free to do things as simple as to go on an innocent date, that somewhere in the city laid out around them, her father was waiting to tell her the things that somehow seemed a million miles away, at least for the moment.  Stealing another glance at the man beside her, Kendall bit her lip.


It was okay, wasn’t it?  It was okay to pretend, at least for a moment.  It would be all right to feign ignorance, to allow herself just this one moment, this one evening, before the things beyond her control swept her away . . .






“So what will you do when you graduate from the Conservatory?”


Kendall sighed and gave a little shrug, clasping her hands together in front of her, her shoes dangling from her fingers as she wandered along beside him.  “I don’t know,” she said softly.  “I . . . I haven’t really thought about it.”


“But you’re in your last year, aren’t you?” Zain challenged, stuffing his hands into his pockets.  “Will you further your studies in piano?”


“No,” she replied thoughtfully, pushing an errant lock of hair back behind her ear.  “I don’t really like it.  I’d much rather just enjoy playing for myself.”


He frowned.  “Then why attend the Conservatory at all?  I thought that most people who do are looking to go on to professional careers.”


She laughed, but the sound was tinged with a trace amount of bitterness—an emotion that took him a little by surprise coming from her.  “For me . . . For me, it was more of an escape.”


“Escape?” he echoed, shaking his head slowly.  “From what?”


“Nothing,” she replied in almost a monotone.  Then she drew a deep breath and shook her head, as though she were trying to refute her own claims.  “Everything.”


Her answer confused him, and yet, somewhere deep down, it also made perfect sense.  “Are you old enough to want to escape from everything?”


Her back stiffened at the slight challenge in his tone.  “Is there a certain age when it’s all right to realize that you hate everything around you?”


He was even more surprised at the vehemence in her quiet voice, the underlying feeling that he knew she’d been trying to hide.  “I suppose there isn’t,” he allowed.  “But why would you hate everything around you?”


Darkened eyes staring at him with an intensity that most men did not possess.  “Don’t you understand it better than anyone?” she asked quietly.


The corner of his lips quirked up in a small smile.  “I can’t say that I’ve ever hated my life to that extent.  Why are you so unhappy with yours?”


She stopped abruptly, sank down in the sand, digging her toes into the dirt as she stared out over the lake.  “From the time I can remember, every single thing in my life has always been decided for me—my clothes, my schools, my lessons . . . even my friends, to an extent.  If they weren’t good enough . . .” Trailing off, she lifted a handful of sand and watched it trickle through her fingers.  Then she shook her head.  “I came to the Conservatory because I thought . . .”


Zain hunkered down beside her, resting his elbows on his knees.  “You thought you could gain a little bit of freedom,” he finished for her.


“Something like that.”


“And did you?”


She smiled, but it was sad, lonely, pooling in her blue eyes with the reflection of the moon.  “No.”  Then she laughed, but it was rough, uneven, almost like she was crying, but she wasn’t.  “I’m sorry,” she said, forcing a little laugh into her shaky words.  “I have to be the worst date, ever.”


“I don’t know,” he admitted, unsure why he was doing any such thing.  “Can’t say I’ve actually been on that many before.”


His answer seemed to surprise her.  “You haven’t?”


“Well, I tend to be a little busy,” he replied then let out a deep breath.  “I’ve taken women to some of the social functions that I can’t avoid, but it was never anything more than a perfunctory appearance.  To be honest, I can’t say that I’ve met many women I’ve been interested enough in to bother.”


For a moment, she didn’t look like she was entirely sure what to do or say.  In the end, she bent her knees, tucked her feet up under her, and if she realized that the dress she wore wasn’t exactly made for lazing around on the beach at eleven o’clock at night, she didn’t show it.  “Then I thank you for dinner,” she said softly, almost primly.


He nodded.  “My pleasure.”


Turning her head just enough to look at him, she suddenly smiled.  That smile escalated into a giggle, then blossomed into gales of laughter so powerful that she lifted a hand to her mouth as though to try to staunch the flow.  It didn’t really work.  “What’s so funny?” he had to ask when she offered no explanation.


“You know, my best friend is going to be so jealous.”


“Why is that?”


Waving the hand that had been fluttering over her lips, Kendall ducked her head just for a moment, but even in the wan moonlight, he could tell that she was still smiling.  “She’s had a crush on you for years, ever since a little party that you attended.  You gave her a flower.”


Zain blinked and slowly shook his head as he tried to recall something like that, but nothing really came to mind.  “Did I?”


She nodded.  “A stargazer lily,” she replied.  “Like I said, it was years ago.  She was just a child.  It’s not surprising if you don’t remember.”


Eyes flaring wide as a spark of a memory flickered to life, Zain chuckled.  “No, wait, I think . . . She was just a little girl, wasn’t she?  Wearing a little yellow dress . . . gold hair . . .?  Her parents dragged her to the garden party, and she looked completely bored . . .”


Kendall giggled.  “You do remember it.”


“Vaguely,” he admitted.  “She was very cute.”


“She’ll be thrilled that you remember it, at all.”


Zain shrugged.  “Unfortunately, I cannot say that I was looking to make a lasting impression on her.”


“But you did,” Kendall insisted.  “She was heartbroken that she couldn’t attend your performance at the Conservatory, but she’s in the violin division.”


He chuckled softly.  “You’ll have to extend my regards to her.”


She nodded, and the smile on her face seemed more natural than any of the others so far.


The two fell silent for a while, staring out over the water, staring at the moon, reflected in distorted ripples on the ever-moving swells.  Zain asked himself for the hundredth time, just why he’d wanted to take her to dinner.  It had seemed like the natural thing to do at the time, and yet . . .


Yet he wasn’t lying when he had told her that he hadn’t dated many women.  For the most part, he had told himself that he didn’t have the time to bother, but he knew well enough that the true reason was simply that he hadn’t met anyone he’d wanted to devote that kind of time and energy to, and for good reason.  Having spent his entire life believing that he would just marry whomever his father had chosen, it wasn’t something that he had worried about, all things considered.


So what was it about her?


He still didn’t know the answer.  Gorgeous, certainly, enough so that any man would have to take notice of her, but he’d met enough gorgeous women over time that he couldn’t delude himself into thinking that it was the only reason.  Her piano playing was something that he was drawn to, but that wouldn’t have been enough, either.  No, honestly, he really didn’t know why, and yet, there was a strange compulsion, too, as though a part of him needed to be near her . . .


That was ridiculous, wasn’t it?  Compelled to be near her?  But he didn’t even know the first thing about her; not really.


Shifting his gaze to the side, staring at her profile, he could once more sense that underlying sadness, that restlessness, that near-desperation in her.


Is there a certain age when it’s all right to realize that you hate everything around you?


No, Zain never had, but that didn’t mean that he couldn’t grasp the meaning of her question.  A lady of her station?  A youkai woman, the daughter of a high-ranking man—a general, no less?  Yes, he supposed that her life had been dictated to her in a way that his never was.  While he had been raised with rules and expectations, there had also existed a certain level of freedom, and, he suspected, it was more than she’d ever been allowed.


“So,” he said slowly, quietly, as though he feared that raising his voice might startle her.  “What kinds of things do you want to do?”


She seemed a little confused by his question.  “Right now?”


He shrugged.  “You said you wanted a little freedom, didn’t you?  So if you had that freedom, what kinds of things would you do?”


She considered that for a moment, her eyes taking on a deeper sparkle, innumerable stars rising and falling in her gaze, and she smiled.  “I . . . I don’t know,” she began cautiously.  “I think I’d like to just go, you know, wherever, whenever . . . See places, meet people . . .” She giggled suddenly.  “Eat things from street vendors . . . shop in a second-hand boutique . . . Play with children in a park . . .” Trailing off with a happy sigh, she indulged her thoughts for another moment before squaring her shoulders and casting him a decidedly nervous sort of glance.  “I sound silly, don’t I?”


“Not really,” he replied.  “I can’t say that I’ve done all of those things, either.”


“You don’t really look the type to shop in a second-hand boutique—or buy food from street vendors, anyway,” she pointed out.  He could hear the teasing note in her voice.  It didn’t hide the longing, however.


“I’ll take you to do those things,” he said before he could stop himself, before he could think it through.  It was more of an impulse—an entirely foreign idea to him.  “As long as you don’t make me wear anything you find in those boutiques.”


“Would you eat a hot dog if I bought you one of those?” she asked.


He chuckled.  “Okay, I might not do that, either.”  But his smile widened a few degrees.  “Well, maybe, if you asked nicely.”


She laughed, but the expression on her face told him plainly that she honestly believed that he was simply humoring her.  For reasons that he didn’t dwell upon, that thought bothered him.  A lot.


“Tomorrow,” he said in a tone that left no room for argument.


She blinked once, twice, shook her head in silent confusion.  “What’s tomorrow?”


Pushing himself to his feet, he leaned down to offer her a hand.  “You pick something you’d like to do, and I’ll take you to do it.”


She stopped, her hand grasped firmly in his, her face registering her surprise, but with that surprise, there was also the hint of cautious hope, and the smile that she shot him was timid yet radiant.  “R-Really . . .?” she asked slowly, quietly.


He gently tugged her to her feet and nodded.  “Yes,” he said.  “Really.”


 <<< 06: Control

08: Expectations >>>



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 12:15 am  

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Fulcrum: 06 Control

~Chapter Six~




“So what did you think of Teppanov’s performance?”


Zain nodded, slipping a little deeper into the shadows to avoid drawing too much notice as the crowd milled around the foyer.  The gesture was not lost on Jamison, and he chuckled.  “He was good,” Zain replied evenly, flipping a long strand of black hair over his shoulder.


“Which means that you were not impressed in the least,” Jamison said with a slow nod.


“No, it means that he performed very well,” Zain corrected, arching an articulated eyebrow at Jamison’s candid reply.  “Don’t read so much into it.”


“You didn’t feel that it was missing something.”


Zain didn’t remark on that.  Sometimes, Jamison knew him just a little too well.  True enough, Zain did feel that Teppanov’s performance was a bit on the reserved side, but it wasn’t worth mentioning, especially when he knew damn well that he wasn’t paying as close attention as he normally would at one of these functions, but the truth of it was, he couldn’t help feeling a little off-center, which was part of the reason why he was trying to melt into the shadows.  The other part?  He was here to enjoy the music, not to be inundated by people whom he’d never met but wanted something from him.  A long discourse about the first half of the recital wasn’t exactly something that he felt like indulging in, especially when she had yet to take the stage . . .


It was almost enough to irritate him, really.  All day, he’d felt edgy, out of sorts, almost anxious, and he had no idea why that was.  It wasn’t something that he was used to, this kind of foreign sense of upheaval, especially when there was no good reason for it.


“It was a good performance,” Jamison remarked thoughtfully, gnawing on the left side of his bottom lip, though not hard enough to puncture it with his fangs.  It was a habit that tended to make humans a bit nervous, mostly because they all knew that those fangs were very, very sharp.  Zain, given as he was to rarely smiling, had never had an issue with it, but more than once, he’d seen humans back away from Jamison just a little bit.  Lower youkai who possessed them could and did use them when fighting, but the upper youkai who had them wouldn’t demean themselves by doing something as base as biting.  Those ignorant youkai had become the irrational basis for the nonsensical tales of vampires that had grown and evolved over time.


“Are you ready?” Jamison asked, inclining his head toward the concert hall once more and apparently unmindful of Zain’s current preoccupation.  “I guess that the most that can be said for Teppanov’s performance was that it was nice but not one of his better shows.  He had a few technical flaws that made the whole thing seem a little sloppy.  Elementary stuff.  I’m sure that he’ll hear about it his next master class.”


Falling into step behind him, Zain grunted noncommittally.  “Careful. You’re starting to sound more and more like a professor every day,” he pointed out.


Jamison chuckled as Zain slipped back into his seat in the upper balcony that was reserved for the Conservatory’s staff and special guests.  “Well, I suppose it was bound to happen someday,” he said as he sat back down.


Zain didn’t respond as he ignored some very blatant giggling and hushed whispers with the accompanying glances that were meant to be surreptitious but failed miserably.  From his seat well above the general crowd, he couldn’t really make out what they were saying, and to be honest, he didn’t really care, anyway.  He had learned to ignore those kinds of things long ago, though he could recall as a child, asking why people would smile at him and even bow when he passed.  “Because you’re the future tai-youkai,” Brie, his nanny had told him with a gentle laugh and in a tone that was almost teasing, definitely indulgent.


That answer had confused him back then.  Even at that age—what was he?  Maybe two?  Three?—he had known what it meant to be the future tai-youkai.  He supposed that he’d simply taken it for granted at the time.  It hadn’t lingered in his mind for long.


Over the years, those looks had evolved.  In school, he’d received more of the ones that had questioned what made him different from the others, why he was considered to be above them all: jealous glances and harsh words that he only half-heard and summarily ignored.  Over time, as he’d proved himself again and again, those had diminished, only to be replaced by expressions that bespoke a certain level of understanding, admiration, and maybe still a little jealousy.


As he had matured, he’d started to notice more and more of those looks, only this time, they came from women, and whether they were drawn to the power of his position or because they found him attractive, he neither knew nor cared.  Besides, he had yet to meet a woman that he could not ignore.


Is that really so?


Dismissing the subtle challenge in his youkai-blood’s voice, Zain refused to acknowledge it.


If you can just ignore her, then why are you here?


Nodding at whatever Jamison was saying without hearing a word of it, Zain scowled as the upper lights started to dim, but the scowl dissipated as she stepped out onto the stage.


He didn’t notice how he sat up a little straighter, held up two fingers to beg Jamison’s silence.  Gaze fixed on the woman as she crossed the stage, she seemed somehow distant, somehow just out of his reach.  The black dress she wore wasn’t especially fancy: a simple satin gown fitted to her hips and flaring just enough to flow around her as the back of the skirt fell to brush the floor.  There was something entirely vulnerable about her delicate arms, her slender shoulders, exposed as they were since the dress was held up only by the finest of straps, and it seemed to him as though she were trying to hide or dissolve into shadow, but she stopped, turned, her expression giving away nothing as she inclined her head before taking a seat at the baby grand piano.


He could feel the rigidity in her stance as she sat, fingers poised over the keyboard.  Nerves, maybe?  Entirely likely, and the hush that had fallen was almost unnatural.  Her shoulders rose and fell once, ever so slightly, as though she were drawing a deep breath to calm her nerves but didn’t want anyone else to know it.


And then, she began to play.






“These came for you.”


Rising off the chair where she had been running through the song in her head, Kendall flashed a small smile at the usher who stepped into the room behind a lovely crystal vase and two dozen white roses.  “For me?” she asked before she could stop herself.


The usher laughed and set the vase on the table near the chair.  “Yes, my lady.  Have a great performance.”


She stared at the flowers as the young man let himself out of the room once more.  The low hum of the crowds mingling in the foyer of the concert hall drifted in when he opened the door to leave.  Reaching out to take the small white envelope stuck in the midst of the blossoms, Kendall hesitated for a moment, as though she thought that the card could hurt her.



Looking forward to hearing you play again.




She frowned.  Z . . .?


Who . . .?


It’s him, of course!  The Fourth . . . Zain Jericho,’ her youkai-voice chided.  ‘Who else could it possibly be?


Swallowing a sharp gasp, Kendall’s eyes flared wide as the truth of that assessment sank in.  It made sense, didn’t it, and yet, it didn’t; not at all.  Why would he have sent her flowers?  And if it was him, then it meant that he’d found out who she was, as well.  But why on earth would he care . . .?


Sticking the card back into the envelope, she carefully stuck it back into the arrangement.  ‘Looking forward to hearing you play again . . .’ Then that meant he . . . he was here.


Pressing a hand against her stomach as it gave a strange little lurch, Kendall slowly turned to check her appearance in the floor-to-ceiling mirror by the door.  The long black satin gown was quite plain, simply made, designed in elegant but modest lines.  She bit her lip and sighed.  It had taken Mimi nearly an hour to arrange her hair just so, pulled up on top of her head, carefully braided and coiled and twisted and then pinned in place, but her hair was so fine that wispy strands had already managed to slip loose.  Twisting a few of them around her finger, she slowly shook her head.  It would have to do since she was sure that she would only succeed in ruining it completely if she tried to fuss with it now.


There was nothing left to do but wait.


Glancing over at the piano, Kendall considered sitting down and playing through the song once but dismissed the idea about as quickly as it had occurred to her.  She’d spent the vast majority of last night practicing, until she’d managed to play it through three times without any mistakes, and she was superstitious enough to believe that if she played it perfectly right now, she would most certainly mess up during the actual performance.


Still, if there was one good thing to be said for spending so many hours playing the same piece over and over again last night, it was that in doing so, she had managed to push the thought of her father’s impending visit from her mind, as well, and for that alone, she was grateful.  It had kept her from breaking down completely as the fear of the unknown had crept in on her.


“Don’t think about that right now,” she muttered to herself, turning abruptly on her heel and hurrying back over to the chair once more.  Her knees felt strangely weak, wobbly, as though she couldn’t support her own weight any longer, and she sank down with a little sigh.


She’d thought about calling Tucker, but she doubted that he’d tell her a thing, even if he knew.  It struck her once more, just how unfair it all seemed.  Why was she the last person to find out anything, especially when the entire situation impacted her more than anyone?


Stop thinking about that,’ she told herself sternly.  ‘Just stop.’


Easier said than done.


Gaze shifting around the room while she tried to will away the thoughts that kept whispering in the back of her mind, Kendall blinked as her eyes flicked over the roses, only to return once more.  They were beautiful, perfect, lovely, but still, she couldn’t figure out why the Fourth, of all people, would have gone out of his way to send those to her.  And why did just the simple thought of that particular man set off a strange sort of tension in her that wasn’t entirely bad, just a little disconcerting in a strange sort of way . . .?


A soft knock drew her out of her musings, and she stood up just as Loribeth Tarkington, a flute master student and the assistant stage manager for the evening, poked her head into the room.  “Intermission is almost over,” she said with a bright smile.


“Thank you,” Kendall said, pressing a hand against her stomach as a million butterflies sprang to life inside her.


“Oh, those are gorgeous!  From your father?” Loribeth asked, nodding at the vase of roses.


“Uh, no,” Kendall replied, crossing the floor in a few strides and forcing Loribeth out of the room ahead of her.


“Don’t look so nervous,” Loribeth encouraged, slipping an arm around her shoulders to offer Kendall a quick, reassuring squeeze as they hurried down the long corridor that led to the back of the stage.  “You’re the last person I worry about out there.”


Kendall didn’t respond to that, but she did manage a wan smile.  Loribeth returned the gesture and gave her another chaste hug before hurrying away, leaving Kendall alone just off the stage while the din of the audience as they returned to the concert hall filled her ears.






Glancing at the name printed on the paper taped to the door for the barest of seconds to make sure that it was the one he was looking for, Zain gave the knob a very curt jerk and shoved it open before striding inside.  The startled gasp that greeted him was smothered by high-pitched laughter that stopped as abruptly as his unceremonious entrance.


Ignoring the nagging voice in his head that upbraided him for his marked show of rudeness, Zain narrowed his eyes at the old fox-youkai whose mouth had dropped open when his laughter had been interrupted and who continued to stare at Zain as though the latter had sprouted another head or two in the span of a few moments.  “Leave us,” he stated flatly in a tone that left no room for argument.


Armand, the stupid little man, seemed taken aback by the terseness in Zain’s command, but he nodded and inclined his head as he quickly hurried over to the door that Zain had just stepped away from.  In truth, Zain honestly didn’t trust himself to speak to the so-called professor, and he pushed the door closed right behind him.


“M-My lord,” Kendall stammered, her cheeks blossoming in a very becoming shade of pink as she clasped her hands together and swallowed hard.


“What the hell was that?” Zain demanded, gritting out the question from between clenched teeth when what he really wanted to do was to shout at her instead.  His youkai-voice was trying to remind him that he really didn’t have a thing to be that irritated about.  At the moment, however, Zain was not in the mood to listen.


She blinked a few times, her expression taking on a confused sort of tilt.  “What was . . . what?” she asked, her voice lowering to a near whisper.


Zain shook his head, pinned her with a glower as he waved a hand in the general direction of the door—of the concert hall beyond.  “That performance,” he stated, his tone telling her plainly that she ought to have already realized as much.


She didn’t look like she understood what was so obviously bothering him, though.  “It was . . . was flawless—well, almost . . .”


Snorting indelicately, he crossed his arms over his chest before he gave in to the rising urge to grab her and shake her.  “Technically, maybe,” he allowed.  “It was also completely lifeless and dull.”


Shocked, that’s what she seemed, by the bluntness of his assessment.  “Professor Armand said it was—”


“That idiot trains people to play the same way—identically—so that every single person’s performance is completely devoid of personality, even if it is ‘technically correct’.”


“He’s regarded as a master,” she said, her tone haughtier than the expression on her face that bespoke a level of confusion that had yet to dissipate, an uncertainty that worked better than anything to curb his overall disgust.


“What I heard from you the other night was something worth remembering,” Zain said, continuing to scowl at her, willing her to understand what he was trying to tell her.  “What you did tonight?  If I closed my eyes and listened, I would never have guessed that your performance was done by the same person.  It sounded as clinical as the recordings made to study, not to enjoy.  Do you even know the difference?”


She didn’t look like she did, and she slowly shook her head.  “He said—”


“Forget what he said,” Zain insisted stubbornly, striding over to her, grasping her hand, dragging her over to the piano.  She shot him a questioning glance, and he shook his head, letting go of her long enough to push her down on the stool.  “Play it again,” he commanded, “but this time, just play.  Don’t worry about the technicalities, just like the last time.”


“But I just—”


“Do it.”


She stared back at him for a minute, the confusion still lingering in her lending her eyes a certain brightness.  For a moment, she looked like she might well argue with him.  Maybe she realized that he was dead serious.  Maybe she was curious as to what, exactly, he was trying to tell her.  Whatever the reason, she lifted her hands, turned her head back to stare at the piano, then she closed her eyes and started to play.


Stuffing his hands into his pockets, Zain frowned as he watched her.  The beginning was just as stiff and lifeless as her performance had been, but as she played, she seemed to remember what he’d said to her about not over-thinking it, about just playing the piece.


It began slowly, almost cautiously, like a flower breaking through the soil in the springtime as her emotion flowed from her fingers into the piano to evoke something altogether different.  Like before, the sense of her grew steadily as she seemed to forget the things around her—maybe that she even had any kind of audience, at all.  The emotion was different from the first time she’d played for him, and that was all right, too.  It was enough that he felt an instant surge of relief, that the cookie-cutter performance that she’d just given might well be a fluke, after all.


But why did it bother him so damn much . . .?


It would be easy to tell himself that he simply hated the idea of someone with her innate talent being told by anyone, master or not, that she needed to conform to someone else’s irresponsible opinion of ‘perfect’, and he might even believe himself, at least for a little while.  That wasn’t it, though, was it?  Unlike many musicians, her piano possessed a voice, and it was as unforgettable as the woman herself.  It was that voice that had been silenced at some point between the first time he’d heard her and tonight, and that was what had goaded him out of his seat in the concert hall and into this room, and if he had his way, it was a voice that she would never, ever silence again . . .


There was a strange sort of melancholy that he could sense, though, a level of misplaced sadness that he could sense despite the paradox that it created within the framework of the given music.  It made no more sense than she did, yet all of it somehow felt familiar to him, too . . .


She finished to perfect silence, her fingers still lingering on the keyboard, and she sighed softly—a sound that was not meant for him to hear.  The small smile that quirked her lips was also not meant for him.  Still, the expression made him want to smile, too.


She let her head fall back as she slowly opened her eyes to gaze at the ceiling.  Slowly, she rolled her head slightly, locking those blue eyes with his, and the secretive little smile did not falter.  “Thank you,” she said, her voice barely audible.


Zain blinked and shook his head slightly, just enough to tell her that he wasn’t sure why she was thanking him, at all.


She uttered a husky little laugh.  “I’ve been practicing for tonight,” she said simply, shoulders bobbing as she sat up straighter and sighed, “but it feels like this is the first time I’ve played all week.”  She laughed again, the sound stronger, more of a normal show of amusement.  “I almost forgot how much I love it . . .” Trailing off as she continued to stare at him, her smile suddenly disappeared as her cheeks pinked up once more.  “I-I mean, playing piano, that is,” she blurted.


Zain chuckled.  “You shouldn’t ever forget,” he told her.


Blinking a few times, she seemed almost surprised, but then, she smiled again.  “Thank you for the flowers.  They’re beautiful.”


“You’re welcome.  I’m glad you like them.”


She nodded as she slowly rose to her feet once more, as the gentle scent of her came to him: of summer sun and grass, drying in a warm breeze . . . clean and simple . . .


She laughed again, gnawing on her lower lip in a rather nervous sort of way.  “You’re missing the rest of the recital,” she pointed out.  Did she hear the hint of reluctance in her tone?  Somehow, he doubted that she did.


“Ah . . . So I am.”  He inclined his head to her, then started to turn to go, but as he reached for the door knob, he stopped.  “You wouldn’t happen to be hungry, would you?”


For a split second, he thought that she was going to decline, but then she smiled again—a true, genuine smile, albeit a little on the nervous side.  “I . . . I am,” she ventured, her gaze skittering away to light on the floor off to the left, but that smile widened just a bit.


He waited for her while she carefully retrieved the flowers and held the door for her.  She paused long enough to cast him another timid smile, and he shut off the light before offering her his elbow and escorting her out of the concert hall.


 <<<05: Obsession

07: Moonlight >>>



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 12:14 am  

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Fulcrum: 05 Obsession

~Chapter Five~




“Give me something to drink, will you?  Traffic was absolutely miserable.  There was a four-car accident on the Interstate, and—”


“Help yourself—like you would any other time,” Zain interrupted as Jamison dropped his jacket over the back of the sofa and yanked at his tie.


“Hmm, are you still looking over that merger proposal?  Is Larimar Industries even worth the fuss?”


Dropping the stack of papers onto the coffee table, Zain rubbed his forehead.  “Probably not,” he said.


Taking his time as he poured scotch into two glasses, Jamison remained silent.


Zain took the glass that his friend offered and waited for him to finally speak.  Jamison, however, seemed to be set on keeping his own council.  It became a warped sort of battle of wills, and finally, with a sigh, Zain relented.  “Did you find out anything?”


At least Jamison didn’t try to pretend like he didn’t know what Zain was talking about, but he did grimace, taking a long drink from his glass before setting it aside in favor of staring at Zain.  “Yes, I did—a few things, actually.  Her name is Kendall: Kendall Farington.”


“Farington,” Zane repeated slowly, eyebrows drawing together in a  thoughtful frown.  “As in, Titus Farington?”


Jamison nodded slowly.  “And Tucker Farington.”


That name drew a scowl from Zain.  “She’s related to that idiot?”


“Sister—at least, that would be my assumption.  Professor Armand said that Titus is her father.”


Frown deepening as he considered what Jamison had said, Zain leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees.  Professor Armand?  He knew that name, or rather, the reputation behind it.  A stickler, wasn’t he, obsessed with the technicalities above all else.  A teacher like that could very easily ruin someone who played with the same feeling as the girl, if he wasn’t careful . . . And her father?  A strange sense of satisfaction surged up inside him, though he didn’t stop to consider why that  might be.  “Titus Farington is a good man,” he stated slowly, carefully, weighing his words as he continued to think.  “Never did understand how that little ass, Tucker could possibly be related to him . . .”


“Probably because your personalities are polar opposite,” Jamison muttered, picking up his glass, holding it high as he stared at the idly swirling liquid within.  “Tucker never thinks at all, and you do nothing but.”


That earned him a droll stare.  “There is something to be said for possessing the ability to make a rational decision based upon knowledge and analysis.”


Jamison chuckled and slowly shook his head.  “You cannot always rely upon that,” he stated in a tone that indicated his belief that Zain ought to know as much already.  “Sometimes, you just have to trust your instincts.”


“I think you do that enough for the both of us.”


Jamison’s grin faded slightly as he regarded Zain for several long moments.  “So . . . Going to tell me why the sudden interest in Kendall Farington?”


Zain had to admit that Jamison wasn’t doing nearly as much gloating as he’d figured he would.  Still, the question made Zain frown, mostly because he wasn’t entirely sure how he could answer it.  He wasn’t entirely sure why, either.  All he knew was that he just had to know more about her.  “She plays very well,” he remarked flatly, refusing to say any more on the matter.


Jamison seemed content to let it drop, at least, for the moment.  “I would suppose she does,” he mused.  “Old man Armand brags on her every chance he gets.  She’s performing in the student showcase Friday night.”


That got Zain’s attention quickly enough.  “Is she?”


“Mmm . . . It’s open to the public, but the tickets are sold out.  Seems that Yuri Teppanov is also performing, so it’s not really surprising.  He’s very popular with the ladies, or so I’ve heard.”


“Sold out,” Zain repeated.  “Is that so?”


Jamison pulled a ticket out of his inner jacket pocket and held it out toward Zain.  “Here.”


“I thought you said it was sold out.”


Jamison grinned.  “Do you want it or not?”


“You’re not going?”


He shrugged.  “No, I am,” he replied with a shrug.  “I bought two of them in case I decided to bring a date with me—not that I want to hold your hand or anything.  You’re not nearly pretty enough for me.”


Zain shot him a look and reached out to take the ticket.  Jamison flicked up his wrist before he could grasp it.


“On one condition, of course.”


“And what condition would that be?”


Tapping the edge of the ticket against his chin, Jamison took his time before answering.  “Is her piano playing really the only reason you wanted to know her name?”


Zain stood up and crossed the floor in a couple steps to snatch the ticket out of Jamison’s fingers.  “I will say yes, and you’ll leave it at that.”


Jamison chuckled and nodded at the papers scattered over the coffee table.  “Okay, but you know that I know that you normally spend all day and night working—even weekends, but if you really don’t want to tell me, then that’s fine, too.  At least you’re going to get out of here for a few hours.”  Suddenly, Jamison straightened up, the amusement on his features disappearing as his eyes flared wide.  “Oh, you never told me how ‘family dinner’ went the other night.”


Zain snorted.  “Mother invited Uriah Marner’s wife and daughter over.”


Jamison digested that as another grin surfaced on his features.  Of course he would find it of sovereign amusement, considering his family wasn’t constantly parading eligible women under his nose at every given opportunity . . . “Not acceptable, was she?”


“That’s a moot point,” Zain remarked, his own lips quirking at the corners in the barest facsimile of a smile.  “It’s not as though I’m really going to have a say in their ultimate decision.”


That statement drew a decided snort from Jamison, and he sat up a little straighter in his chair.  “And refresh my memory: just why are you going along with this, anyway?”


Zain shrugged.  “It’s how it’s done.”


Jamison chuckled.  “It’s how it’s done,” he echoed with more than a small hint of sarcasm in his tone.  “So you’re to be the next tai-youkai, aren’t you?”


“Are you really asking?”


Jamison snorted.  “Of course not, but what’s the point of being all-powerful if you cannot even make up your own mind about the woman you’ll spend your life with?  Tell your father to change it.”


That earned him definitely irritated look, which, in Zain’s case, simply meant it was even more blank than normal.  Since it wasn’t the first time they’d had this particular conversation, Zain didn’t bother with an argument, either. “You’re such an ass,” he pointed out.


“You’re right; you’re right,” Jamison relented despite the smile still brightening his eyes.  “I mean, he is tai-youkai.  If that really were the case, this country would have already gone to hell in a hand-basket . . .”


“Think what you will,” Zain muttered, stowing the ticket in the breast pocket of his white lawn shirt before reaching for the papers he’d let drop just after Jamison’s arrival.  “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to finish looking these over before tomorrow morning’s board meeting.”


Jamison nodded and stood.  “Not a problem.  See you later.”


The echo of his footsteps on the cold marble floor lingered in his wake long after Jamison had exited the room, and he sighed.


Just why did he have this strange fixation on that girl, anyway?  Beautiful, certainly, but he’d met enough women over the years that it wasn’t a standing point for him, and besides, he’d met enough to know that the beauty that many of them possessed in spades did nothing to hide their facetious attitudes.  They were polished until they shone, sometimes brighter than the sun, but what did that matter when all of the pretty manners only covered up the venom that could well linger just below the façade?  The truth of it all was a little uglier than any of that.  It wasn’t that he couldn’t allow that there had to be some sort of fascination to lure him in, but when he thought about the idea of pursuing any one of those women . . .


He sighed.  There was nothing at all noble in his feelings, nothing to say that he wanted a woman who was as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside.  No, it was more that he understood innately that he was much too selfish to deal with someone—anyone—who constantly required his absolute attention, one of those women who knew well enough, what to say and when to say it when that meant nothing in the end.  He didn’t need someone who clung to him, didn’t want a woman who could not exist outside of his reach, and it wasn’t because they honestly could not.  It was a game of manipulation, and that was just not something that Zain was willing to play.


But why?  Why did he feel as though she—Kendall Farington—was not like that?  Despite the air of vulnerability that she projected, there was something beneath all of that, too: a will that he could sense, even if she had not given it voice as yet.  Maybe she didn’t know it herself, but it was there, and it was that sense that had come through in her piano playing . . .


“Pardon me, my lord.  Dinner is served.”


Zain didn’t look up at the sound of the maid’s voice, but he nodded.  “Thank you.  Bring it in here, please.”


She didn’t respond, but he heard the whisper of her shoes as she slipped out of the room.


Kendall Farington.


Just why couldn’t he get her out of his mind?


Letting the papers drop from his slack hand, Zain dug the ticket out of his pocket and frowned at it.  Friday night at seven-thirty . . . Had she managed to fix whatever perceived flaws she imagined in her performance?  Even the simple memory of watching her as she played was enough to take him right back to that moment: the expression on her face, the understated grace of every note . . . For some reason, the idea of having to share that particular performance with anyone else annoyed him, almost unreasonably so, and yet . . .


At least we know her name,’ his youkai-voice remarked.


It didn’t really explain her overall reluctance to tell him, in the first place, and if he considered that, he had to admit that he wanted to know the why of it.  He wanted to speak to her again, didn’t he?  Wanted to see the way her cheeks had blossomed with color under his perusal, wanted to watch as her eyes brightened when he’d told her the truth about her playing, even if she had thought that he was simply flattering her, wanted to . . . wanted to hear her say his name . . .


Is that so?


He didn’t answer.  Only a handful of people ever dared to call him by name.  All others used some form of title, some kind of honorific.  Even she had stubbornly refused to deviate from that, never mind that he had given her permission to do so.


Without a second thought, he pulled out his cell phone and scrolled through the list of contacts.






“Stop, stop, stop,” Professor Armand interrupted, waving his hands wildly, as though he thought that Kendall hadn’t heard him.  He stared at her for a long moment, crossing his arms over his chest, then slowly shook his crazy mane of brassy-red hair until it seemed to frizz out even more than usual.  Mouth twisting into an exaggerated grimace, he looked like he was caught somewhere between anger and tears.  “Where is your mind, Miss Farington?  Because it most certainly isn’t on the performance piece!”


“Sorry,” she murmured, lowering her gaze to her hands, folded demurely in her lap.


“Your recital is tomorrow,” the fox-youkai went on in a haughty tone: very small man; very large personality.  “If you cannot deliver, I will remove you from the performance roster.”


“I’m sorry,” she said again, ducking her head a little lower.  “I’ll practice harder.”


“You must—absolutely must—pay more attention to the score!  Don’t play with your eyes closed!  You’re not nearly talented enough to play without reading the music!  It must be exact!  It must be precise!  It isn’t yours!  You cannot own it!” he went on, sweeping across the floor and back again, stomping his foot to emphasize his words.  “You are borrowing a masterwork!  That is all!  When you are famous for composing such breathtaking pieces, then and only then can you do as you please!  Have you ignored every single thing that I’ve taught you?” his voice took on a hurt kind of quality.  “I took you under my wing!  I chose you—you!  If you cannot listen to simple instruction, you have no business being here, now do you?”


Biting back the irritating sting just behind her eyelids, Kendall shook her head, stubbornly refusing to give in to the threat of tears that fought to take control.  “No,” she agreed quietly, “I’m sorry.”


Gnawing his bottom lip with his tiny, pointed teeth—fox-like teeth—the professor seemed to be considering whether or not to believe her.  Finally, he sighed, rubbing his short forehead melodramatically.  “Okay, okay,” he relented, fluttering his free hand in her general direction.  “As you know, my reputation is on the line!  Of all my master class students, I chose you to represent me tomorrow night!  If you fail, then I do, too!  You don’t want that, do you?  You don’t want people to think that I’m a failure, do you?”


“No, sir,” she whispered, trying to control the tremor that rose in her throat.


Armand seemed to be satisfied somewhat by her humble response.  Checking his watch with a flourish, the small man scurried over to retrieve his attaché case off the sofa.  “I must go, but you . . . You will practice until you get it right!  All night, if need be!  Remember: this is not your piece to do as you please!  It is the great Sergei Rachmaninoff’s, and I will remind you that he knew better than a mere piano student when he composed this masterpiece!”


Kendall said nothing as the professor hurried out of her apartment before she heaved a sigh.  When Professor Armand had demanded that he oversee her practice this evening, she had known that it was a bad idea.  Still, she knew better than to argue with him, too.  As abrasive and flamboyant as the professor was, he was also highly respected, and she knew that she ought to feel grateful—privileged, even—that Armand had chosen her to offer his instruction.


Rising off the bench, she sighed quietly and wandered into the kitchen.  Her hands were shaking as she pulled a bottle of water out of the refrigerator—shaking so badly that it took a moment of deep breathing to calm herself enough to twist the cap.


What was wrong with her?  Just why had she felt completely undone lately?  It was almost as though she couldn’t concentrate to save herself, but why . . .?


Letting out another deep breath, she rubbed her face with a trembling hand.  Truth be told, she felt like she was teetering on the edge of a great chasm, and one false step could send her careening down into the unchartered depths . . .


A sudden laugh slipped from her, a dry, whispering, reaching sound.  ‘Knock off the histrionics,’ she told herself sternly.  ‘I’m starting to think like the heroine in some tawdry novel.  I’ve just been practicing too hard . . . Maybe I need to get out for a little while . . .’


But she couldn’t, could she?  If she didn’t get the piece down before tomorrow night’s recital, she’d never hear the end of it from Professor Armand.


She hated it, didn’t she?  The Conservatory, everything . . . and she hated the cage that contained her entire life.  Gulping down the liquid so fast that a trickle of it slipped out of the corner of her lips, she slammed the bottle onto the counter, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.


The sound of the telephone made her jump, and, gritting her teeth, she reached for the handset on the wall.  “Hello?”




Her mouth suddenly felt as dry as the desert at the sound of that voice.  “F . . . Father . . .”


“Tucker told me about your recital,” Titus Farington said in his usual brusque, no-nonsense kind of way.  “I trust you are ready for it.”


“I was just practicing,” she blurted, frowning as she tried to figure out just why he was calling her.


“Good,” he replied in a completely preoccupied tone.  No, it wasn’t exactly preoccupied.  It sounded more perfunctory than that, like he was just making small talk to fill in the space before he got around to the true reason for this particular correspondence, like the, ‘Hi, how are you, I’m fine . . .’ part of a letter . . . “I wanted to let you know that I’ll be there.”


“Y-You’re coming?”


“Yes.  There’s something I wanted to talk to you about, anyway.”


Biting her lip, Kendall felt her grip tighten on the receiver.  “What about?” she couldn’t help asking.


Titus chuckled.  To her ears, it sounded entirely forced.  “Your future, of course.”


“My future . . .?  What do you mean?”


“You’ve had an offer of marriage.  The match will be very beneficial to our family, and I’ve already accepted on your behalf.”


For a long moment, Kendall could feel her heart stop dead in her chest, could feel the room spin around her as her stomach lurched unpleasantly.  She could tell from the sound of her father’s voice that he honestly expected her to be thrilled by the news.  She wasn’t; not by a long shot . . . “Wh-What . . .?  But who . . .?”


“You’ll be pleased with him,” Titus insisted, as though it were already a foregone conclusion.  “I will see you on Friday.”


“B-W-I-Wait!” she stammered.  “Father, I—”


The call cut off, and Kendall gripped the counter so tightly that her knuckles turned white as the telephone slipped out of her hand and clattered onto the floor.  For a minute, she thought that she might well pass out, but as the light-headedness passed, the sound of her ragged breathing seemed to echo in her ears.




Certainly she’d realized that it was inevitable, and if she had stopped to think about it, she might have known that it was bound to happen sooner or later.  That didn’t really help the rising swell of panic that surged deep within her.  Her mother had never kept the idea of it a secret from her.  If anything, she’d tried to prepare her for it, telling her that it would be up to her father to decide and that Kendall would learn to accept it.


So why was it that she felt completely upended by the decree?


You know why,’ her youkai-voice whispered quietly.  ‘You were hoping.  You were hoping that somehow, you’d manage to steal just a little bit of freedom, weren’t you?  Even if it was no more than a year or two . . . even just a few months . . .


Yes, she supposed she was—just a while away from the notice of her father, away from the stifling life that she couldn’t escape.  All of the big decisions of her life were made by that man, and it had been that way from the time she could remember.


Maybe it would be more bearable if she thought for even one second that her feelings had actually been taken into consideration in all of this, but she knew better.  Titus hadn’t chosen a man for her because he might make her happy.  That would have been the farthest thing from his mind, and hadn’t he said as much . . .?


No, it all centered around what he could gain from bartering off his daughter in marriage.  Good for the family?  It shouldn’t surprise her that Titus would choose a future husband for her in much the same fashion as he chose what stocks to buy or sell, what businesses in which to invest.  All of her life, he had made all of her decisions, dictated to her what was best for her: the people who had taken care of her, the schools she’d attended, who was or was not good enough to be her friends, everything . . .


The edges of panic were rising, higher and faster: almost enough to choke her, and she could feel the walls of her invisible prison closing in on her just a little more.  It wouldn’t matter if she objected because Titus Farington had never listened to her before.  No, he’d simply give her that annoyed look of his and tell her that it was for the best, don’t be difficult.  It wouldn’t matter if she cried or begged or pleaded.  Those things meant nothing at all to the man who was her father.  He wouldn’t hear her fears, he wouldn’t understand her reluctance.  He certainly wouldn’t listen to her hopes, her dreams, the things she wished for, and now?


Now he had chosen someone who, sight unseen, would make the rest of the decisions for her for the rest of her life . . .?


<<< 04: Arrogance

06: Control >>>



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 12:13 am  

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Fulcrum: 04 Arrogance

~Chapter Four~




Zain raised his sword, slammed it down hard as jagged streaks of crimson light erupted from the fissure created when the blade met the earth.  The streaks shot out, exploded with a deafening crash that bent the distant trees in a crazy dance, as the wind howled, as the cry of nature twisted around the shriek of the boar-youkai moments before the light enveloped him, moments before his body disintegrated in a hazy white flash: in a gust of unnatural wind.


Standing impassive, his expression blanked, he did not blink as the ashes of the boar-youkai swirled in the air, scattered by the blast, and as quickly as the wind had come, it vanished.  Blanking his mind as he slowly pivoted, raising his sword to point at the remaining youkai, Zain watched as disbelief turned to horror on their faces.


“We cannot defeat him,” one of the youkai hissed at the others.  “He’s too strong!”


“Forgive us, my lord!” another one yelped as panic rose in his voice.  “P-Please!”


“Be gone,” Zain said, lowering his sword though he did not drop it into the scabbard on his hip.  “Don’t cause any more trouble.”


“Yes!” the last one said, grabbing his brothers’ arms and trying to drag them back.  “Come on!”


Zain didn’t move as he watched the three make a hasty retreat.  Only after the taint of their auras had diminished did he kneel down, wiped the sword in the grass.  Then he pressed the flat of the blade against his forehead and close his eyes for a moment.


Even in challenge, do not dishonor your opponent . . .”


He sighed.


There have been threats, saying if we refuse to meet with them, they would take out their aggressions on the people in the town in which they live.  Meet with them and find out just what it is they’re after.”


Opening his eyes, Zain continued to watch the edge of the clearing where the remaining brothers had disappeared.  His senses told him that they were long gone.  Still, there was a lingering uneasiness that he couldn’t shake.


We want our father to be pardoned.  He served faithfully under the Third for years,” the oldest brother had said.


Zain stared at him.  “Your father?  The same father responsible for the foundry explosion that killed a hundred people?


That wasn’t his fault,” the youngest brother—the hottest tempered of them—spat out.


Do you honestly think that your father did not realize what was going to happen?  He knew that the melder was faulty, and he insisted that it remain in operation anyway.  Your father was warned ahead of time, what would happen if that melder malfunctioned.  He ignored those warnings, and he alone created what might as well have been a B-class explosive,” Zain countered.  “Your father will be released after his sentence is carried out.  After all, more than half of the victims were human.  As such, he was tried and sentenced according to their laws, not ours.  Be grateful.  If he had been judged by ours, he wouldn’t be sitting in a jail cell.  He would very likely be dead.  This is not something that concerns the tai-youkai, and he will not interfere.”


But the Third would let him go if you asked him to,” the second brother said.


I will say it one last time.  He will not interfere,” Zain stated once more.


Then I challenge you,” the oldest said as he rose to his feet.  He stood a good half a foot taller than Zain and was certainly burlier, as well.  In hindsight, he likely thought that he possessed the upper hand in a fight . . . “I don’t want to be tai-youkai, but at least if I was, I’d be a better one than you or your damned father!


Pushing himself to his feet, Zain finally dropped the sword back into the sheath, welcoming the breeze that materialized, that lifted his bangs and soothed the balmy, humid night.


It didn’t take long to return to the rental car that he’d driven out to the desolate field where the brothers were waiting for him.  He would most assuredly hear about it later since he’d opted to go alone to meet them.  Still, Heller had said that there was a sense of growing dissent in the region already, and, while Zain was reasonably certain that the general in charge would not be stupid enough to rise up against the tai-youkai, he also didn’t care to spend the time in ascertaining whether or not he could trust anyone that the general might see fit to send along with him, either.


To be completely honest, Zain wasn’t actually considering stopping by to visit the current general.  Whatever business he might have was something that he would have to take up with Heller, after all.


Are you sure that’s the only reason?


Ignoring the irritating voice of his youkai-blood as he yanked his sword free and slipped it onto the passenger side seat, Zain gave the seatbelt a vicious yank and secured it into place.


You’re just smarting because the girl refused to give you her name.’


Snorting indelicately since this was neither the time and place for him to be thinking about anything other than the things that had happened since he’d stepped foot off the plane, he blanked his mind as he drove back to the hotel.


“Mr. Jericho,” the woman sitting behind the opulent desk of the Macon Duarte Hotel called out to him as he started to pass.  “You’ve gotten a few messages while you were out.”


Zain nodded and took the slips of paper from the human woman before continuing on his way to the elevator.  One from Jamison and two from Uriah Marner, the general of the southern region who probably wanted to know why Zain hadn’t come to stay with him for the duration of his trip.  Crumpling them in his fist, he stuffed them into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone, instead.


“Zain, how are things?” Heller asked, answering the call after precisely three rings.


Zain stepped into the elevator and punched the button for the top floor.  “Chase Morton’s sons want you to intervene on behalf of their father to have him released from prison early.”


“What did you tell them?”


Pulling out his key card, he slipped it into the slot to ensure that this particular elevator ride would not be interrupted by any additional stops along the way.  “I told them the truth.  It is of no concern to the tai-youkai’s office, and he has to serve out his term, just like anyone else.”


“Mmm . . . Were they satisfied with that?”


“Of course not,” Zain replied.  “The oldest son issued me a challenge.”


Heller sighed.  “A challenge,” he repeated thoughtfully.  “And the remaining brothers?”


“They won’t be any trouble,” Zain assured him.


“Stubborn fool.”


Zain grunted in response.  He was inclined to agree.  No matter how much larger the youkai was physically, he should have realized that there was a reason that the Jericho family had held the office of the tai-youkai since its inception on the continent.


“Will you be returning tomorrow?  Or did Uriah invite you to visit since you’re in the area.”


“His business is with you,” Zain said as the bell chimed to announce the opening of the elevator doors.  Crossing the thickly carpeted lobby to the only door on this floor, he barely paused as the doors to the penthouse suite opened moments before he walked into them.


“No, I’m sure that he believes that he does have business with you, too,” Heller remarked.


“With me?  Why would that be?”


Heller chuckled, and in the background, Zain could hear the soft rattle of ice cubes against glass.  “Do you really think that he’s given up on the idea of having his daughter married to the future tai-youkai?”


Zain stopped abruptly but did not give voice to the thoughts that sprang to life in his head at his father’s assessment.  “I’ll be home tomorrow,” he stated flatly, leaning the sword against a chair.  He needed to give it a more thorough cleaning, but that could wait at the moment.


“I see.  Try to get some sleep before you hurry back,” Heller chided.


“Yes, Father.”


“And your mother wishes you a good night, as well.”


“Thank you.”


The line went dead, and Zain let out a deep breath as he tossed the cell phone onto the sofa in passing.  Sleep?  He doubted that.  It wasn’t so easy to forget that he’d just been forced to take a life. In the time since he’d reached adulthood, he’d only had to accept challenges twice counting tonight, and, while he’d been instructed from a young age, and even though he realized the inevitable outcome of such fights, it wasn’t an easy thing.


The first time had been five years ago: the foolish son of a youkai who claimed to be a revolutionary.  Suppress the humans was his goal, and in an effort to gain momentum, he’d goaded his son into issuing the challenge to Zain.  In hindsight, he was sure that the son hadn’t actually wanted to fight, and in truth, had it been up to Zain, he would have let the young man out if it if he had that choice at all.  He hadn’t.  The rules were absolute, after all, but as much as Zain tried to convince himself that he had only done what he had to do, there was still a bitterness about it, even now.


For everyone else, there was always a way out of a fight, or at least, there was a way to end those fights without someone paying with their lives.  Zain didn’t have that luxury.  It was the only part of his duty that he despised.






“So tell me!  How was the performance?”


Kendall smiled as she stepped over to the windows that overlooked the rear of the campus.  “Not even a ‘hello’ or anything first?” she teased.


Mimi giggled and heaved a dramatic sigh.  “Hello, hi, how are you?  Good?  Great!  So, how was the performance?”


Kendall laughed, kicking off her shoes as she wrapped one arm over her stomach and gazed up at the blue sky above.  “He’s very skilled,” she said, choosing her words carefully.


“What?  That’s all you have to say?  Oh, come on, Kendall!  I don’t suppose you were able to record him . . .?”


“Sorry, Mims, but they took everyone’s cell phones at the door.”


Mimi spent a moment or two grumbling under her breath, something about gorilla security and unfair rules that were made to be broken.


“And he left right after the performance, so we didn’t get a chance to ask him a thing.”


Mimi heaved another sigh.  “Well, that just figures . . . Is he still as gorgeous as I remember?”


Kendall paused before answering.  Somehow, she’d known that it would come to this, and yet . . .


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 . . .”


Biting her lip as a very distinct shiver ran up her spine, Kendall couldn’t stop the blush that filtered into her cheeks, either, at just the memory of those words, and those bright brown-orange eyes that wouldn’t go away, even when she closed her eyes . . . “He’s . . . I . . . I didn’t really see him very closely,” she lied.


Mimi sighed, and her disappointment was almost palpable.  “What do you suppose the odds are that we’ll just casually run into him some day?”  Then she laughed, but the sound was a little hollow.  Or was that just Kendall’s imagination . . .? “Oh, what am I saying?  Your father’s a general.  I’m sure you’ll meet him long before I do again.”


There wasn’t much in the way of encouragement that Kendall could offer Mimi on that score.  True enough, Kendall’s father was a general, and Mimi’s father was a biochemist: a very well-respected biochemist, but that was neither here nor there when discussing the idea of casually running into the future tai-youkai . . .


“I remember, he has the most amazing eyes,” Mimi went on, clueless as to the direction of Kendall’s current thoughts.  “It’s like they could look right through you, you know?  Just thinking about him . . .”  She gave a little squeal of happiness followed by another longsuffering sigh.  “What did he play?”


Rubbing her arm as another shiver ran up her spine, Kendall grimaced.  Yes, yes those eyes probably could . . . “Gaspard de la Nuit and Feux Follets.”


“Umm . . . Ravel and Liszt?”




Mimi let out another deep breath.  “I’m so jealous,” she muttered.   “Anyway, I just called to ask you about the performance.  Unfortunately, I’ve got a chamber music practice, so I’ve got to go.  I’ll call you tomorrow.  Are you free for lunch?”


This time, it was Kendall’s turn to sigh.  “Not really.  I’ve got to practice more, but the recital is Friday, so maybe we can catch up this weekend?”


“Okay!  Don’t practice too hard.”


Kendall hung up, but didn’t turn away from the window.


You’re the one who should be performing here today . . . That was . . . beautiful.”


Why couldn’t she get him out of her mind?  Whether it was his words or his presence, she wasn’t sure, but as hard as she tried to remind herself that he was just being nice, especially after she’d heard him play, she couldn’t get his words out of her head.  She couldn’t decide if he was mocking her or if he honestly had meant what he’d said, but it was obvious to her after hearing him perform that he was the one who belonged up there on stage.  That she knew well enough, exactly who he was didn’t matter.  There was a reverence in his playing, as though he understood fully what the composer was trying to get across.  It was an intuitive thing; something that could be learned to some extent, but if the gift wasn’t there to innately understand a piece on all levels, the meaning would be lost in translation.  It was that intangible quality that separated the true artists from those who could only learn to replicate sound.


That was . . . beautiful.”


Pushing open the window, Kendall leaned on the frame, closed her eyes as she drew in a deep breath.


Those eyes . . . they seemed to glow, the starkness magnified against the blackness of his hair . . .


Zain—Just ‘Zain’ will suffice.”


Why had he looked almost irritated in that moment?  Surely she had to have been imagining that, because the next instant, his expression was completely blank once more.


Why didn’t you tell him your name?


Jarred out of her musings by the sound of her youkai-voice, Kendall frowned as she closed the window once more.  ‘I . . . I didn’t have time,” she thought defensively.


You could have.’


Kendall sighed as she wandered over to the piano.  Yes, she supposed she could have.  Professor Rainsley had poked his head into the room to tell the Fourth that it was time.  Still, the future tai-youkai had lingered, staring at her for another long moment before she hurried out of the room to go find her seat in the concert hall.  She didn’t know why she was so reluctant to give him her name.  Or . . .


Just because Mimi met him ten years ago does not mean that she has any real claim on him, you know.’


Maybe that was true.  But then, did it really matter?  She wasn’t free to make any kind of real choices, and he wasn’t, either.  Even if she was, something deep down told her that she really ought to steer clear of that particular man.  Someone like him was just too used to absolute power, wasn’t he?  It stood to reason, considering who he was.  He’d probably never even heard the word ‘no’ before, and besides, there was something about him—about Zain Jericho—that . . . that scared her.






“Jamison, I need to talk to you.”


Jamison glanced up from his desk and pulled the wire-rimmed glasses off his face as Zain strode through the office door without knocking and without pausing.  “Oh, hello, O Great, Exalted One.  Oh, to what do I owe the honor?”


“You can be such an ass sometimes,” Zain pointed out flatly.


Jamison broke into a half-smile as he sat back in his chair.  “Would you prefer, ‘O Captain, My Captain’?”


Striding over to the window, draping his hands on his lean hips, Zain stared down at the milling students, growing more and more agitated as the seconds ticked away.  “Who is she?” he asked without preamble.


He could feel Jamison’s gaze drilling into the back of his head like he was trying to see inside to figure out just what the hell Zain was thinking.  “I’m going to assume that you think I know what ‘she’ we’re speaking of.”  He waited for clarification and sighed when he realized that none was forthcoming.  “Okay, I give up.  What ‘she’ are we talking about?”


Grinding his teeth together, Zain could feel his claws digging into the window sill.  It irritated the hell out of him that he was here, in the first place, having to ask Jamison something he already ought to know, and why?  Because she damn well should have told him when he’d asked.  Twice.  “Yesterday when you came to tell me that it was time.  The girl that was in the room with me.  I want her name.”


“Oh, that one,” Jamison drawled, reaching for the bottle of water on his desk.  “I don’t know.”


“Jamison, I want you to know that I just got off a plane an hour ago.  I haven’t even been home to shower yet.  I’m tired.  I’m dirty.  I had to kill a boar-youkai who was arrogant enough to think that he could beat me.  The only thing—the only thing—that could possibly make me want to relive this day is for you to give me that girl’s name.  Please.”


Jamison laughed at Zain’s uncharacteristic show of irritation.  “That was so not the way to ask for someone’s help, you know,” he pointed out between chuckles.


“I’m warning you—”


Holding up his hands in blatant surrender did nothing to wipe the smirk off of Jamison’s face and only served to make Zain want to lunge across the desk to beat some sense into his demented friend, but when he erupted into a low growl, deep in his throat, Jamison relented.  “Seriously, Zain, I don’t know.  She’s not in any of the classes I teach, and she’s not in my master class, either.”  Eyeing Zain briefly, he slowly shook his head.  “I take it that you want me to find out.”


Zain didn’t look entirely pleased with Jamison’s answer, but he relented.  “Thank you,” he said, managing not to sound very thankful, at all, as he headed for the door.  “I’m going home to shower and change.  Call me when you find out, will you?”


The door closed behind him, and Jamison broke into a wan smile.  In all the years that he’d known him, he couldn’t recall ever seeing Zain so close to being completely rattled.  Hell that, he couldn’t recall having ever seen him even half-rattled, and over a girl, no less?


Smile disappearing as he remembered the girl in question, Jamison tapped his claws on the desk idly.  Long platinum blonde hair and deep blue eyes?  Beautiful face, certainly, yet there was something about her that seemed familiar, even though he’d never actually met her before.  He felt as though he ought to know her or at least something about her.  Still . . .


Jamison sighed and pushed back the chair.  He might not know who she was, but one of the other professors would, and he’d better ask around before Zain did something entirely stupid, like lose his temper completely.


<<<03: Intrigue

05: Obsession >>>



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 12:12 am  

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Fulcrum: 03 Intrigue

~Chapter Three~




“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!”


“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.



posted by Sueric at 12:12 am  

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Fulcrum: 02 Inescapable Fate

~Chapter Two~

~Inescapable Fate~



“Ah, just the man I wanted to see.”


Zain didn’t even glance up from the file he was looking over regarding the proposed acquisition of Larimar Industries by the Jericho Foundation conglomerate.  Last year when his father had turned the day-to-day operations of the main corporation over to him, he’d thought that it was a huge honor: an acknowledgement of his abilities and the efforts he’d put in ever since graduating from college.




Now he knew it was no such thing.  Acting as the CEO of the Jericho Foundation conglomerate was challenging in a completely perfunctory kind of way.  Add to that the responsibility of being the tai-youkai’s heir-apparent, and it meant long work days with very little in the way of distraction.  Maybe that had been Heller Jericho’s ultimate goal . . .


“And why were you looking for me, Jamison?” Zain asked in a decidedly distracted manner without bothering to look away from Larimar Industries’ expense reports from the last few years.


“I wondered if you could help me out.”




Jamison chuckled.  “But you haven’t heard why I’m asking,” he chided, obviously believing that Zain would be intrigued by whatever it was his friend was trying to con him into doing.


“I’m sorry,” Zain remarked without sounding the least bit contrite.  “If you haven’t noticed, I’m buried already, and even if I weren’t, I would be soon enough, or did you forget the annual summit?”


“Nope, didn’t forget that,” Jamison went on, flopping into one of the thickly appointed chairs across from Zain’s desk.  Slouching back, letting his long legs extend out in front of him, he entwined his fingers over his chest and grinned at Zain in a very self-satisfied sort of way.  “Hanging out with a bunch of really boring, really stuffy, really pompous youkai?  I’d think about passing on that, if I were you.”


Zain shot him an unimpressed glance and finally dropped the papers in his hands for the duration.  “Even if I wanted to, I cannot.  Anyway, state your business so I can say no and get back to mine.”


“I’ve been put in charge of arranging a special guest performer at the Conservatory.”


Zain blinked since Jamison’s answer wasn’t exactly what he’d come to expect from his friend.  “How did that happen?  I thought that the head of the department always took care of that.”


“You’re right.  Normally, he does.  Seems that he’s asked me, though, to approach a certain someone about coming in for a few minutes, maybe an hour . . . Play something, chat with the students, make nice-nice . . .”


Settling back in his chair, Zain almost smiled—almost.  “And you honestly think that I have time to indulge you?”


“Come on, Zain.  God only knows that you rarely get away from here, and when you do, it’s to go home for those absolutely asinine meetings that your father insists upon having.  You haven’t been on a vacation since we graduated from the academy, and I’m not asking you to take one now.  Just take off a few hours to help me out.  Besides, I know damn well that playing relaxes you, so what would it hurt?”


“Surely there are far more accomplished musicians out there,” Zain pointed out mildly.


Jamison shrugged, as though the entire matter were already settled.  “There are, but none that I know, and it seems that Professor Crenshaw has heard great things about your skills.”


“From you, no doubt,” Zain grumbled.


“Not from me—well, not originally.  Apparently, Headmaster Foight told him about you a few years ago.  Said you could have made a career of it if you’d wanted to . . . if you didn’t have something bigger already planned, anyway.”


“Leave it to that crazy old man to say something like that,” Zain remarked with a shake of his head.  “I really don’t have time.”


Jamison sat up straight then leaned forward, elbows on his knees, long golden hair falling into his face over his shoulder as his startling yellow eyes took on a heightened glow, like pinpoints of light in the darkness.  Those eyes were a trademark of a true fire-lynx-youkai, after all . . . Zain knew that look well enough.  It normally led to one kind of trouble or another . . . “I’d consider it a personal favor.”


“You already owe me enough personal favors,” Zain pointed out reasonably.  “I don’t really need another one.”


“Maybe not, but I do,” Jamison persisted.  “It’s just one afternoon.”


Zain heaved a sigh as he propped his elbow on the arm of the chair and curled his fingers over his lips.  “When do you need me to do this?”


“Whenever you have free time,” Jamison replied as a broad grin broke over his features and he hauled himself to his feet.  “Just let me know.”


Zain stared at the door for several minutes after his friend had taken his leave.


Heller might not be too pleased about his promise to appear at the Conservatory.  There was a good chance that the current tai-youkai would think that the entire thing was a waste of time, and considering that he was never a big proponent of Zain’s piano lessons as a child and throughout his youth, it wouldn’t surprise Zain if there ended up being some kind of disagreement over it when he found out about it.  But Karis had insisted that her son would learn some of the finer arts, especially when he’d had to start training to fight from the time he could stand on his own two feet.


But Zain did enjoy playing piano, and Jamison knew that.  Zain didn’t doubt for a moment that the offer to play stemmed more from Jamison’s belief that Zain had all but given up the instrument when he had inherited the Jericho Foundation.


True, he didn’t have nearly as much time to sit down and play as he once had.  Still, sometimes in the middle of the night when he couldn’t sleep, he’d find his way to the piano in his living room, sometimes spending the rest of the night, just hammering out songs that he’d learned years ago.  It soothed him, helped him to deal with the sometimes nearly overwhelming stress of his life, especially when he thought about the things that would come.


To be honest, he’d never really known a time of real freedom, hadn’t ever questioned the things that had always been simple fact to him.  Some might hate the idea that his entire life was already planned out with precious few variables.  It didn’t bother Zain nearly as much as it weighed upon him, the inevitable questions like, would he be a good tai-youkai?  Capable, certainly.  Years of training for it had already assured that.


The tai-youkai.  The great being.


It was a station designed to keep a certain level of order over them all.  Youkai, the creatures of legend . . . Centuries ago, back in the old days when humans had roamed the earth like they were destined to own it, the youkai hadn’t existed in the way that they did now.  Some of them had been relegated to bedtime stories, to the overwrought imaginations of countless humans.  When guns were invented, a great number of his kind had perished.  Humans feared what they could not understand, hated the very thought that something more powerful might well exist, and to that end, many of the youkai were destroyed out of ignorance.  Luckily for them, they were resilient.  Stronger, faster, more powerful . . . That’s what had saved the youkai in the end.


Youkai was a Japanese word, but it was the best one to describe what they truly were: mystical creatures, neither good nor malevolent.  Other regions possessed youkai; they were beings that had existed upon the earth long before humans, and would continue to do so long after the humans were gone, but the highest of them had originated in Japan, and it was the old country that had nurtured them and had, ultimately, given them rise to power.  Some possessed creature spirits, like Jamison—mononoke, the Japanese called it.  Some youkai were the embodiment of nature’s elements, able to harness and use those elements at their whims.  Zain was both, and he was neither.  His family had descended from the inu no taisho—the leader.  It wasn’t a direct line, but his family had retained the powerful aura—youki—of the one both feared and celebrated as the strongest of them all.  If Zain were to claim lineage, then it could be said that he was inu-gami—the dog god—but that wasn’t quite right, either.  The dog spirits gave him power, certainly, but the ability to control other elements gave him finesse.  He, his father, his grandfather, had all lost the classification of being one kind of youkai or another, to the point that they did not possess any inherently dog-like physical traits, though they did retain the heightened sense of smell most common to their kind as well as the razor sharp claws, the slightly elongated fang teeth.  Those things were fairly common amongst the youkai in general.  Unlike a true dog-youkai, however, Zain did not possess a dog-form, so he couldn’t transform in that manner.  Like his father, though, he could transform himself into an energy form—that was to say, he could dissolve his body to move with frightening speed for short periods of time—which was something that only true descendents of the legendary greater-youkai could do.


It was interesting, really.  Over time, the lesser-youkai had all but vanished.  They had been too weak, too stupid to avoid the fate that had destroyed a vast number of them.  The ones that remained were mostly the greater-youkai—the ones who closely resembled humans and possessed the intelligence and the forbearance to continue to exist.  In some cases, just the heads of the most powerful clans managed to survive.  The rest of the lower forms were either killed off or they had devolved over time until they were no more than animals with no sense of awareness of where they had come from, of what they had once been capable of doing.


As centuries had passed, the relationship between humans and youkai had progressed, though a certain level of separation still remained.  Youkai in general were not bothered by the humans, regarding them as little more than the transient beings that they were, while humans tended to shy away from the areas that were more heavily dominated by youkai presence.  Whether or not they still harbored the old-fashioned resentment that had led to eras of war in the past, they seemed content enough to keep to themselves.  It worked well.  Some countries were even run by human governments, especially in areas where youkai were scarce.  Most, however, were run by men like Heller Jericho: appointed by the inu no taisho, and these men, the tai-youkai, selected their own to oversee districts on a more personal level.


But the fragile peace between human and youkai was something that was a fine line to walk, even in his house.  That humans worked for the tai-youkai was meant to show that the two really could coexist.  Some of the humans thought that it was little more than a show of certain repression, to keep humans in the roles of serving the youkai.  Zain knew better.  Many of those humans in their employ were the ones who had helped to raise him, caring for him in the capacity of nannies and tutors until he was old enough to attend school.  Employees, maybe, but . . . but Zain could recall more than once when he was small, the nurturing care he’d received, and it had never crossed his mind back then to ask if the gentle hands that had dabbed at a scraped knee or the arms that had hugged him when he had been afraid were human or youkai.  It simply hadn’t mattered.


Still, the truth of it all was something that was easy to overlook as just a given.  The strongest of them were always the ones given power, and however they chose to wield that power was by their own personal choice.  A few, like Heller, were given to letting the youkai exist with as little interference as possible.  It was also the general belief of the reigning inu no taisho, as well, to live and let live—or die, if that was the case.  As a result, there were moments of unrest, but those situations usually worked themselves out, and the hostility of their kind was more satisfied than if someone tried to tell them how to live.  As brutal as it could be, there was a certain level of necessity to it, too.  After all, youkai as a whole could exist for centuries at a time, and the stronger the youkai, the longer they lived.  It was the check-and-balance of their existence.


Most of the youkai were more content to live their lives and let others live their own—something else that had helped them to endure when the humans first rose up against them.  It created a kind of natural balance.  Occasionally, there were those who sought to upset this balance, but the ones foolish enough to challenge the current reigning house always learned the error of their ways, especially if it came to the point where one of them would issue formal challenge.  The rules of the challenge were absolute: one winner, one loser, and the loser paid the price with his life.  Youkai who were weaker would always lose to someone who was stronger, and the house of Jericho?


Well, in the history of youkai on the continent known as North America, no reigning Jericho had ever, ever lost a challenge fight . . .






“You look like you’ve lost a little weight.”


Kendall Farington blinked and set down the brightly polished silver fork, forcing a smile that she wasn’t really feeling as she lifted her gaze to meet Tucker’s.  “Do you think so?  I’ve been eating all right.”


Tucker didn’t look entirely convinced, but he didn’t argue with her, either.  “No one eats ‘all right’ during exams,” he chided with a little grin.  “So how were they?”


“I did well,” she remarked, slowly, methodically lifting the fork once more and pushing the food around her plate.  “I got a top mark in my chamber music class.  They’ve asked that I play at a recital next month.”


“That’s great!  Father will be pleased to hear that.  Have you told him yet?”


Shifting slightly in her seat, Kendall willed her smile to brighten and tried to shrug in a nonchalant way.  It struck her, just how odd it really was.  Tucker looked so much like their father that it was almost frightening: platinum blonde hair, just a few shades darker than Kendall’s, the same blue eyes that were so dark that they often seemed black, the same facial features, the same tall, stocky build,  and yet, he was as different as night and day . . .  “Oh, he’s so busy, you know . . . It’s not a big deal.”


“What?  Are you kidding?  It’s a huge deal.  I wouldn’t wonder if he would drop everything just to be here for it.”


Giving up all pretenses of actually trying to eat, Kendall set her fork down once more and slowly shook her head.  “It’s fine, Tucker,” she said a little more sharply than she meant to.  “Don’t bother him with something so insignificant.”


Letting out a deep breath, Tucker leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest as he nodded tightly at the waitress who interrupted long enough to refill their water glasses before offering them a curt bow and backing away from the table.  “Care to explain to me why you don’t seem to want to have anything to do with Father since Mother’s death?” he asked almost casually after the waitress had dismissed herself.


She opened her mouth to protest but closed it with a sigh when Tucker leveled a no-nonsense look at her.  “It’s nothing,” she lied.


“If it were nothing, you wouldn’t be upset,” Tucker pointed out patiently.  “Come on.  Don’t lie to me.”


The darkened room dimmed her vision as the painful sounds of labored breathing filled the unkind quiet.  “Play for me, Kendall,” she’d said, her voice little more than a whisper.  “I want that to be the last thing I hear . . .”


Kendall blinked back the memory, stared at Tucker for a long moment.  Platinum blonde hair catching the light filtering through the windows, bathing the table in the small bistro with a brightness that fake lighting could never achieve, he gazed back at her with the same blue eyes as their father.  Funny that the similarities ended there.  There was never the same blankness in Tucker’s eyes—a blankness that she had always understood meant that Titus Farington was looking through her at whatever it was that he deemed to be more important: a business meeting or the tai-youkai’s matters.  How often had her mother told her that she should not bother Titus?  That being in charge of the western region was an important job, after all . . .?


Giving herself a mental shake, Kendall sat up a little straighter, pushed her plate away as she let her head fall to the side, her gaze not leaving Tucker’s, even for a moment.  “Tell me something, Tuck . . .”


He almost smiled at the nickname she always used for him when she was small but hadn’t really used in years.  “Okay, Dolly.”


“When you inherit Father’s position, are you going to become like him, too?”


Her question seemed to catch him off-guard.  “What do you mean?”


Offering him an off-handed shrug, she finally let her gaze drop away in favor of refolding the crisp, white napkin.  “He didn’t go see Mother the entire time she was dying,” Kendall said softly.  “Not once.”


His sigh was soft, almost weary.  “Father’s a busy man,” he replied, his voice sounding older, more tired than it should have, given his age.  “I’m sure he wanted to.”


“Hmm . . . Then you have more faith in him than I do.”


“He was busy, and—”


“Too busy to walk up one flight of stairs, to at least look in on her?”


Tucker had the grace to look uneasy at that, but he tried to force a smile meant to placate Kendall, she supposed.  “Are you sure he never did?  Father . . . He’s never been one to show emotion, especially in front of us—you.  You know that.”


Kendall shook her head.  “Actually, I don’t.  I can’t say that I know a single thing about that man, Tucker.  Unlike you, I’m just a daughter—beneath his notice—and I always was.”


Just what could he say to that?  It was true, and he knew it, too.  Tucker was the child Titus had wanted: his heir, and Tucker was the one who had spent most of his time in his father’s presence, being groomed to one day take over the responsibilities that went with his station.  Kendall was an afterthought.  Her mother had said once that her pregnancy with Kendall had been a gift, of sorts: a little trinket to pacify a wife who had longed for something more than her husband had provided.  That she had been born a girl was just icing on the proverbial cake, but Titus had seen fit to leave her in the care of her mother and the countless nannies and governesses that had paraded through her life at one time or another.


“I think you’re underestimating him,” Tucker said gently, his eyes glowing with a certain light that meant that he was not pleased with the current topic of conversation.


“Did he move his girlfriend into the mansion yet?” she countered.


For a moment, Tucker looked surprised.  “What do you—?”


Kendall almost smiled at the expression on his face.  Pained, that’s how he looked—sad that she’d found out something that he had been trying to hide from her.  “I’m not a fool, Tucker, and Mother wasn’t, either.  She knew.  Of course she knew.”


“She comforts him,” Tucker said, his tone almost apologetic.


“Don’t make excuses for him,” she retorted, her voice lowering to barely a hiss.  Unable to hold back her own emotions, unable to accept the reasons, her hands shook, and she clenched them together in her lap.  “He never loved Mother.”


“You know that’s not true,” he chided, his tone softer than his words.  “He loved her very much, and she never held his work against him.”


Standing abruptly, Kendall paused long enough to grab her purse and sweater before pausing to utter her last words in parting.  “Yes, well, maybe she should have, Tucker.  Maybe she should have.”






“I’ll expect you to be home promptly by seven.”


Rubbing his forehead as he stared at the pile of files atop his desk, Zain considered declining his mother’s ever-so-gracious ‘invitation’ to dinner for about ten seconds before he slowly shook his head.  Arguing with a woman like Karis Jericho wasn’t exactly a good idea, and worse, if he did try to get out of it, he was most certain to receive a phone call from his father that would not be nearly as pleasant.  “Seven.  Absolutely.”


Karis laughed moments before the line went dead, and Zain snapped the cell phone closed with a heavy sigh as it dropped from his fingers onto the desk.


He should have known.


Then again, considering he wasn’t exactly surprised, he guessed he had realized it on some level all along.


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 . . .”


“Sometime soon,” he muttered under his breath as he shoved the quirk of irritation away.  He could think of a million things he’d rather be doing than to make the two hour drive out to his father’s estate, just to sit through dinner with his mother’s idea of an eligible bachelorette and her mother, who was likely going to be trying everything possible to sell her daughter as the perfect companion for the future tai-youkai . . .


Still . . .


You might as well resign yourself to the facts,’ the voice of his youkai-blood spoke philosophically—it was a voice that every youkai possessed, though some were more attuned to it than others.  Zain, as a rule, normally tried to ignore his, mostly because he found whatever the voice had to say normally to be things that he either already knew or just didn’t care to be reminded of.  Sometimes it even worked . . . ‘Eventually, you’re going to have to take a wife, and you know as well as I that there are a million reasons why that may or may not have a damn thing to do with feelings or love or even mild fascination.’


Maybe . . . but I’d hardly say that I’m desperate at the moment or anything.’


A very definite snort from the voice.  ‘Your father wants to secure the line of succession, and can you blame him?  Look how many wives it took him to get you.’


That isn’t exactly true . . .


So what was?  Heller had admitted once that his first marriage had been a disaster, mostly because he hadn’t even met the bride until the day they were wed.  At the time, there was a rising insurgence of unease in Europe because the tai-youkai had been defeated in a challenge, and the youkai were not very happy with their new leader.  Despite being an ocean away from it all, however, there had been many who thought that Heller ought to interfere to try to ensure a level of peace, so he wasn’t exactly in a good place to be trying to cater to a new wife, either.  From what Zain had been told, the woman had left him after a few weeks of his perceived indifference, though it had taken another twenty years to get her to agree to file for a divorce.  It made sense.  Being the wife of the tai-youkai held a lot of sway, even if they weren’t living together, much less talking to one another.  The second wife had stayed a little longer and had bore twin sons, as well, but they weren’t Heller’s, even if she had tried to pass them off as his.  That was stupid, really, considering that youkai didn’t have any trouble in ascertaining their own offsprings’ scents.


Karis had told him before, too, that she had hated his father from the moment she’d met him.  Her favorite words to describe him at that time had been stuffy, overbearing, pompous, self-righteous . . . So it was a huge surprise to everyone when the two had actually fallen in love—albeit much later after the wedding—and only then had Zain come into the picture.


To be honest, the idea of marriage just wasn’t one that Zain really ever thought about.  Considering he’d always figured that eventually he would end up with a wife that he barely knew, he never saw the need to bother with worrying over it.  It was all politics, anyway: strengthening one’s position through ties of marriage, and sometimes, it was even used to genetically enhance one’s offspring.  Zain’s background was strong enough that this particular reason wasn’t one that was necessary, but it wasn’t unheard of, especially in families that were weaker in abilities.  No, it was more likely that youkai were offering their daughters up in the hopes of securing a more powerful bloodline down the road, and as distasteful as Zain found it to be, there were the questions of whether or not Heller wanted to chance strengthening a family that might not be entirely devoted to the current tai-youkai, as well.  Political, social, monetary advantages—these were the reasons that usually went into the consideration of marriage.


The long and short of it was that the reasons for marriage were many and varied, and it was not often that the idea of love even came into the picture, at least, when it came to the aristocracy.  Divorce was not uncommon, especially after the birth of an heir.  He’d heard before that the second or third marriages were made more for love matches than anything else, and in a rather twisted kind of way, Zain supposed he could understand that, too.  After all, if the first marriage was meant to produce the necessary heir, then that was all that was needed, wasn’t it?


<<<  01: Breakfast of Champions

03: Intrigue >>>



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 12:11 am  

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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