Vasic didn’t understand her. At all. She didn’t act as a Psy was meant to act and so incited responses from him that were outside the norm. “Do you purchase treats for yourself as well?” he found himself asking, though why the knowledge mattered to him, he couldn’t articulate.
Ivy bit down on the plump flesh of her lower lip, her eyes lit from within. “When I was eighteen and a half,” she whispered, stepping so close that her exasperated dog forced his body between them, his furry coat pressed against Vasic’s combat boots, “I went into the township’s general store for the first time.”
Not backing off, Ivy continued to speak in a low, private tone, as if she was sharing a secret.
He found himself bending toward her.
“I had money I’d earned from helping on the farm,” she told him, “and I intended to buy useful supplies. Then the woman who runs the store with her husband offered me a sweet because I was ‘too skinny by half.’” Her eyes drifted shut, her sigh long . . . and he thought perhaps she’d forgotten she was standing defenseless in front of a trained killer.
He stayed motionless, unwilling to fracture the strange, inexplicable moment.
“It was soft and sweet enough to incite sugar shock,” she murmured, “and the most astonishingly delicious thing I’d ever tasted.” Her lashes flicked up to reveal those perceptive, expressive eyes of copper and gold. “She told me it was called a Turkish Delight. I bought an entire box and gorged myself. Then I went back the next day and bought another box.”
Glowing with a joy that saturated the air, she leaned in even closer and said, “I felt guilty so I bought Rabbit extra treats as well.” Tiny lines formed at the corners of her eyes, bracketed the curve of her lips. “Alas, that was the end of my money, so we both had to wait another whole month before I could get more.”
Vasic stared at her, wishing he had the capacity to comprehend her. Deep in the back of his mind, in the crumbled ruins of who he might’ve once been, he had the piercing thought that she was a rare, beautiful gift. And such a gift, came the ice-cold reminder from the core of his nature, would only end up crushed and bloody and defiled should he attempt to handle it.
Stepping away from her so suddenly that she swayed a little, he turned to walk to the door. “The others will be here soon.”
Ivy stared at his shoulders, the raw intensity of his gray eyes burned into her retinas, her body missing the powerful presence of his own. He’d watched her as if she was the only thing in the entire universe, as if she was his version of a Turkish Delight. As if he wanted to devour her whole. Shaking her head to rid it of the foolish, impossible thought, she followed him to the porch.
Rabbit quivered by her side until she bent to pet him and whisper, “Go, explore. I’ll stay in sight so you can still protect me.” A happy lick, a “woof,” and Rabbit scampered out to sniff at the rocks and the grass that poked up through the snow near the trees.
A few steps out, he froze, then started again, froze. Again and again.
Concerned, she spoke to Vasic without looking at him, unsettled after . . . whatever it was that had happened between them. “He’s never behaved like that. Do you think he might be sensing contaminati—”
“He’s picking up the scents of the wolves and leopards who built the cabins.”
Oh. Ivy rose slightly on her toes, uplifted by the bubbles of excitement in her blood. “Will we see the changelings?” She’d never been near any big predator—discounting Vasic. He could’ve easily been a wolf, pure black with eyes of stunning frost.
Unable to resist, she turned her eyes to his profile. It was clean, pure.
“The experiment can’t begin until your minds have relocated to this region of the PsyNet.”
It took Ivy several seconds to wrench her thoughts back from the image that had formed in her mind between one heartbeat and the next—not of a black wolf after all, but of a warrior-priest from eons past. Strong and unwavering in the face of evil, and with a courage that defied comprehension.
“Yes,” she managed to say, stunned by the force and potency of the image. Yet, was it a true insight born of instincts of which she wasn’t consciously aware, or was she seeing such qualities in Vasic because she needed to see them, needed to think of him as a protector rather than the opposite?
“It shouldn’t take long,” he said into the heavy silence.
Rubbing her hands over her arms, her sweater suddenly too thin, Ivy simply nodded. Academics attempted to claim knowledge, but no one understood all the rules of the psychic plane. Minds were usually anchored in one place by a biofeedback link, but individuals could go anywhere in the Net, even travel physically to another continent with no change in their psychic location. However, if a person wanted to reanchor, as Ivy did, the process could take as little as twenty-four hours.
Hearing voices, she realized someone else had arrived. Curious but also a little shy, she turned to Vasic. “Shall we go meet them?”
He walked down the single step to the ground in response, the black silk of his hair kissing his collar. It couldn’t be regulation length, and she liked the fact that despite first appearances, he wasn’t the perfect soldier . . . was perhaps her warrior-priest after all.
The first meeting went well, Chang a personable cardinal not much taller than Ivy. “I’m a scientist in my ordinary life,” he told her, before they parted so he could claim a cabin.
His Arrow was far more remote.