“I would expect nothing less.” Kaleb slid his hands into the pockets of his combat pants. “You understand if the latter ever happens,” he added, “I’ll show no mercy.”
Vasic said the words on Aden’s tongue. “The Arrows expect mercy from no one.”
There was no further discussion, the bargain made, the future irrevocably altered.
Looking at the streak of light that marked the passage of an airjet in the star-studded night sky, Aden thought of the cold at that altitude. Icy, inimical to life. But it was in that same hostile environment that snowflakes formed on the windows of slower craft, creations of delicate filigree . . . beauty born in the bitterest cold.
* * *
IN the hours that followed Kaleb’s meeting with the Arrows, a very select number of people received a visit from Kaleb Krychek—and two men received one from the Ghost, their meeting place the last two pews of a small Second Reformation church, the lights turned off in this one section. Neither Judd nor Xavier was surprised at the news of the upcoming revolution in the Net.
“The wave,” Judd said, “has crested. To swim or to drown, those are the only two options.”
Xavier’s words were quieter, held more worry. “So, we’ve achieved our aim—the Council is no more, and Silence is about to fall. And yet I think the task is just beginning.” Looking up as a parishioner entered, Xavier rose to speak to the frail, elderly man, while Kaleb turned his face deeper into the shadows.
“It’s not safe for Xavier to be connected to Kaleb Krychek,” Judd said once the priest was far enough away that he wouldn’t overhear the words, “but no one will blink an eye at the fact that Judd Lauren knows another Tk. If you need me, I’ll be there.”
“The same applies.” Kaleb didn’t quite understand how he had come to have the loyalty of these two men, but he knew he’d guard their trust with his own. “I’ll make sure Xavier remains safe.” He paused. “I paid a quiet visit”—unknown, unseen—“to the mountain village where his Nina is meant to be.” It was an act that would gain Kaleb nothing, but he thought he had done it out of friendship, to save Xavier pain should it be a false trail.
Judd’s laugh was soft. “So did I.”
“Shall we tell Xavier?”
“No, he leaves for the mountains tomorrow. I think some things a man must experience to believe.”
Kaleb thought of the candle flame in the void, of a bond beautiful and unbreakable, and knew Judd spoke the truth.
* * *
WHEN he returned home at last, all the pieces in place, it was to find Sahara standing in front of the house, her eyes on grasslands kissed by the pearl gray light of the time before true daylight, the mist still licking the ground. Wearing a pretty white top and a flowing ankle-length skirt of summer yellow flecked with tiny flowers in myriad shades, the skirt embellished with two layers of ruffles created of the fabric, she looked like a piece of sunshine racing ahead of the dawn.
“Kaleb.” She ran into his arms.
“What are you doing out here?” He didn’t speak of the meetings he’d attended; she’d been with him everywhere but the church—terming that a discussion with friends. It was Sahara who had known Vasic was close to broken; as for Aden, she’d agreed with Kaleb that the telepath was a man who could become a powerful ally if they could earn his trust.
“I was waiting for you.” Fingers weaving through his hair, she drew him in for a kiss that reminded him he was hers and no one else’s.
The past, she told him with her every touch, had no claim on either one of them.
Breaking the kiss when he would’ve drawn her closer, she said, “Don’t tempt me,” and nudged him toward a chair she must’ve brought from inside the house. “I’ve been working on something I want you to see. We still have time, don’t we?”
“A half hour,” he said. “But first”—he lifted his arm, the bandage gone, the skin no longer red thanks to two minutes with an M-Psy—“I had it done a few hours ago.” The same M had excised the original burn with a skill that had left Kaleb with only the faintest scar now obscured by black ink. As for the medic, since she had kept her silence in all the years of her employ, he had no doubts she’d do the same now.
Sahara traced the ink with a trembling finger before she bent to press her lips to the tattoo, her touch tender, her eyes dark with emotion. “I’ve branded you.”
“You did that a long time ago.”
“I did, didn’t I?” A tear he kissed off her cheek, one of his hands curving around her throat.
“I told you,” she whispered against his lips, “I was very smart at sixteen. Now sit.”
When he did, Sahara stepped back, stretched out her arms . . . and then she was dancing, her limbs flowing with a grace and a beauty that made it appear as if she had wings. He couldn’t breathe, wasn’t sure his heart beat until she stopped and went down on her knees in front of the chair, her hands on his thighs.
“That’s all I have so far.” It was a laughing confession. “I know I’m rusty.”
Chest painful, he said, “You were beautiful.” Strong and whole and a luminous repudiation of everything the monsters had tried to do to them both. “Again. Please.”
The mist swirled around her in fragile streamers as she granted his request, her body seemingly weightless. When he gave her a cushion of air as he’d done when she’d been a girl, her eyes sparkled and she flew higher, her hair a midnight rain down her back, his Sahara for whom he would’ve burned down an entire civilization . . . except that she’d asked him to save it.