He held me today.

Her body ached at the memory of his strength against her, his hand so tender and gentle on the back of her head. It was nothing he would’ve done at the start of this operation. And . . . and he’d caressed her with his gaze, the silver of his eyes molten. Melting at the memory, she counseled herself to be patient.

“Did you and Aden ever play together?” she asked, cuddling into the coat that smelled comfortingly of him. Clean soap and a warm male scent that was distinctly his. Last time Sascha had visited, Ivy had seen the cardinal empath nuzzle her mate’s throat as they walked away. Ivy wanted to do that with Vasic, draw in his scent directly from his throat.

He gave me his coat.

She smiled. Expert teleporter that he was, he could’ve no doubt called in something that was a better fit. He hadn’t.

“Not ordinary games,” he said into the hush of the night. “We didn’t have the time, or the freedom.”

“I’m sorry.” And angry, so angry. No one had the right to steal a childhood.

“We did, however,” he added, “find ways to keep ourselves busy during the rare instances we somehow escaped supervision. Once we managed to paint zebra stripes on every wall of a training room.”

Delight cut through her anger. “How did you manage that?”

“Aden and I stole the paint from work elsewhere in the facility. Then,” he said, “he created a distraction while I painted as fast as I could. Afterward, I hauled myself into the ceiling with the paint and the brushes, and crawled my way out. No one ever discovered it was the two of us that did it, since we left no clues and the head of the training center vetoed large-scale telepathic scans.”

“Why didn’t you teleport out for your escape?” Ivy asked with a laugh.

Vasic took so long to reply that her smile faded, dread growing in her abdomen. “I had a psychic leash on my personal ’porting ability as a child,” he said at last. “It was the only way anyone could keep me where they wanted me.”

Ignoring everything else he’d said, she focused only on the most important, most terrible part. “They created a lock on you like I had on my mind?” Except where she’d been unaware of what she was losing, he’d been fully conscious of it. It must’ve felt like having a limb hacked off.

“That doesn’t work for subdesignation V. Our ability is too deeply integrated into our minds.”

“Like breathing,” she said, her horror growing.

“Yes. Not fully autonomous, but close enough. The only way to control me was to use another Tk-V to do it.” He stilled as a wolf’s haunting howl rose on the air in the distance, followed by another a moment later, then another, until it was a wild symphony.

Hairs rising on the back of her neck and breath frosting the air, she turned toward the sound. “I wish we were allowed to go farther, to interact with the changelings.”

“They’re protecting their vulnerable.”

“Yes.” The fact this compound existed at all was a huge trust on the part of DarkRiver and SnowDancer, the biggest step in the relationship between the Psy and the changeling races for over a century. “The other Tk-V,” she said when the wolf song died down, leaving only a lingering sensory echo of its primal beauty. “He was an Arrow, too?”

Vasic nodded.

She waited for him to say something, but he’d answered her question, and as she’d already learned, he wasn’t a man who talked more than he had to. The snow crunched under her boots as they walked on, the sky a deep midnight dotted with stars. She didn’t interrupt his silence this time, her thoughts of a boy who’d grown up in a cage, taught to become a tool his captors could use . . . of the man who’d survived that with the will to protect a flame inside his heart.

Chapter 22

Kaleb Krychek may have mandated the fall of Silence, but he gives us no answers for who we are without the Protocol. He leaves us to drown.

Anonymous PsyNet posting

COMFORTABLY ENSCONCED IN the sun-drenched breakfast nook, Sahara completed the lesson she’d downloaded and considered the question asked by the lecturer. “What is the meaning of good governance?”

Kaleb looked up from the counter where he’d just finished preparing two nutrient drinks. Drinking from the glass he passed her, she blew him a kiss. “I love you.”

“You only say that because of my cherry flavoring.”

She almost splurted the drink out of her nose. “And to think people say you have no sense of humor.”

Having finished his drink, Kaleb did up a cuff link. Sahara’s stomach heated as it always did when she watched him dress or undress.

“Why are you studying politics when you’re living it?”

She walked over to finish buttoning his shirt and do up his tie, the strip of deep blue, almost black silk lying around his neck in readiness for her touch. “Because,” she said, delighting in this small ritual that had quietly become a part of their lives, “people who think they know everything end up becoming despots.”

Kaleb’s hands on her hips, his thumbs brushing over her skin after he nudged up her knit top as he had a way of doing. “Good governance,” he said, “is acting for your people rather than for your own gain.”

Her fingers stilled on his tie. “Yes,” she whispered to the man she adored, a man who’d been brutally scarred by “leaders” acting for their own selfish interest.

“That is your definition.” His fingers squeezed her hips. “Mine is to do nothing that would make you ashamed to be mine.”

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