Standing after another half hour of silence, he gave a respectful bow of his head before walking to the water’s edge, the snow soft and the pebbles small and smooth beneath the heavy tread of his combat boots. Zie Zen was growing frailer, the hand he’d placed on his cane as Vasic turned away trembling a little, but Vasic had known better than to offer his assistance. His great-grandfather would’ve considered that an insult of the highest magnitude.
I’ll need your help soon enough. When it is time, I will ask.
Reaching a hundred and thirty years of age was not unheard of in their world, with a limited few living beyond that, but Vasic didn’t think his great-grandfather would make it. He saw the same tiredness in Zie Zen’s eyes that he felt in his soul, and after what he’d heard tonight, he understood that Zie Zen had suffered blows that had left grievous wounds. And still he continued on.
You are the son of my heart, my truest descendent . . . You will do what must be done.
As Vasic once again considered his great-grandfather’s life, he thought of Ivy with her too-perceptive eyes that showed her every thought and her scrappy dog that thought it was a mastiff. Yet there was a fierce strength there, strength that had led her to seek to protect those who were her own even if it meant facing down an Arrow.
. . . it’s how they’re made. Of stubborn courage and little to no ability to be selfish.
If Ivy followed that pattern, she’d be eaten alive by the monsters that prowled the Net. The world was an even harder place now than that which had claimed Zie Zen’s Sunny. Too many people had had their sense of empathy worn away to nothing, become cold inside in a way that couldn’t be ameliorated. Sociopaths reigned supreme in many areas of life—from business, to education, to medicine.
It would take decades to fix that imbalance.
Others were so used to being told what to do that they were finding it difficult to function under the current regime. Total freedom would be their worst nightmare. Voracious in their need, these hungry individuals would ask for more and more and still more from the empaths, until an E had nothing left.
Until she lay down to sleep one day and never again woke.
That realization uppermost on Vasic’s mind, he walked for near to an hour along the rim of the lake. When he saw the large spotted cat watching him from the trees, he didn’t make any sudden moves. Instead, he inclined his head in quiet acknowledgment. The leopard—or perhaps it was a jaguar—did the same, then whispered away into the trees, two predators passing in the night.
• • •
UNABLE to sleep, Ivy sat in her doorway wrapped up in a thick throw, and stared at the star-studded sky. A drowsy Rabbit had pulled and pushed his cushioned basket to her side with annoyed huffs, and now lay snoring beside her. A normal night, the sky holding a hard-edged clarity that came only on the coldest nights . . . except that her life would never again be normal.
Ivy’s lips twisted. Her life hadn’t ever been normal, not as the Psy understood it. Even before her collapse at sixteen, she’d known she was different. She’d tried so hard to be like her fellow students at school, increasingly rational and remote with every year of growth and training, but Silence had always been a coat so ill-fitting it exhausted her to wear it.
Mother, why can’t I do it right? The teacher says I’m flawed.
She’d been sobbing as she asked that question, a nine-year-old girl who’d failed her Silence evaluation for the second time. Ivy would never forget what her mother had said.
Flaws make us who we are, Ivy. Without them, we might as well be made of plas, featureless and indistinct. Never ever be ashamed of your flaws.
Then her parents had worked together to figure out a way she could pass the evaluations, though inside, her conditioning was as bad as always. Now an Arrow named Vasic had given her the answer why, and it destroyed everything she thought she knew about the world, her mind turbulent with the need to believe.
A shooting star fell across the sky in a splinter of light at that instant . . . and her nose began to bleed.
Ivy had already made her choice. This, she thought as she used tissues from the pocket of her robe to deal with the blood, was simply the coda on that decision. If the E designation did indeed exist and Ivy carried the ability, she wanted to explore it with every ounce of her being. The fact it would likely stop her brain from crushing itself was a bonus—
Her breath caught in her throat, her hand falling to her side, fisted on the bloody tissues. “You’re early,” she whispered to the man who’d appeared in front of the cabin.
“I’m not here for your decision.” Winter gray eyes scanned the area.
Rabbit jerked awake on a growl just as the Arrow disappeared around the side of the house. Heart thudding, Ivy could almost think she’d imagined the whole surreal experience, but he appeared around the other side of the cabin not long afterward. “You expected a threat?” she managed to ask, one hand on Rabbit’s rigid back.
“No.” His face an unreadable silhouette against the night sky, his shoulders outlined by starlight, he added, “A simple security sweep.” Ivy was now under Vasic’s protection, even if she hadn’t accepted the contract.
A startled spark in eyes that were dangerously expressive even in the low light. “Oh.” Continuing to pet her dog, she said, “Would you like something hot to drink?” A frown. “You must be cold if you’re doing security sweeps at this time of night.”
Vasic paused. She was afraid of him, the instinctive response an intelligent one. And yet she’d offered him sustenance. His great-grandfather was right—empaths did not appear to have the best sense of self-preservation. “No,” he said. “Why are you sitting here?” Talking to her hadn’t been on the agenda.