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I wake to a room gone suddenly bright as Axel calls to me from his place by the door.
He pauses. Allowing time for me to gather myself, begin the slow crawl from slumber, before he makes his way to my bedside. His approach heralded by the soft hum of his breath rising and falling—the muffled hush of his feet crossing the smooth limestone floor.
His voice is a melody.
His movements an inspired choreography.
Still, when he stands by my side and places a tentative hand on my shoulder, I shrink from his touch and squinch my eyes shut. Stretching back to the dream where I cling to the memory of Dace's embrace. The sweep of his fingers moving over my flesh … the press of his lips meeting mine … desperate to lose myself in the glittering burn of his kaleidoscope eyes, reflecting my image thousands of times. Preferring the fantasy of Dace and me blissfully reunited at the Enchanted Spring, to the barren truth that awaits me.
"Daire, please. I know you're awake." Axel keeps his tone light, as though he's not the least bit annoyed by the game. "I will gladly sit here all day if that's what it takes." He claims a space on my mattress and waits for me to acknowledge him.
"You have the patience of a saint," I snap, reluctantly forfeiting the dream and accepting it for the ghost that it is. My eyes widening at the sight of Axel's anxious lavender gaze. Caught by the way it darkens to a deep stormy amethyst, before turning as clear and luminous as the day we first met.
The day our first words were spoken, formalities exchanged.
The day he swept me into his arms and rocketed me high into the sky. Piercing through the glorious silken spun web that yielded to a world of bright golden light.
So unlike the prior times—once deep underwater—once in a haunted Moroccan square—back when I was naïve enough to disregard the events as coincidence.
"I'm hardly a saint." His fingers spear through his shock of blond hair that swoops over his brow and falls in loose curls past his cheek. A move I've observed countless times, and yet, it's no less enchanting than the first. The platinum strands seamlessly blending into a complexion so fair, smooth, and translucent, I can't help but think (and not for the first time) that between the pastel eyes and porcelain skin, he appears so exquisite, so strikingly angelic, the only things missing are a halo and wings.
"If not a saint, then an angel, perhaps?" The question hangs heavy between us, not nearly as jokey as it might seem on the surface. Here in the Upperworld, anything is possible, and I'm eager to get to the truth of this strange situation I find myself in. "Or a spirit guide, maybe? Perhaps even my spirit guide?"
My gaze narrows on his as I silently ponder the unspoken questions:
Am I a convalescent or a captive?
Is he saving me or enslaving me?
Assured by the way he flinches, the way he tears his gaze away, that he heard the thoughts as well as the words.
"What if I told you I was none of those things?"
"Then I'd suspect you were lying," I say in a voice that's strong and sure. Wanting him to know that while I may be at a physical disadvantage, dependent on his willingness to take care of me and tend to my wounds, my will is still strong. My days as an invalid are nearing an end.
He lowers his chin, sending a tumble of blond curls sailing over his forehead, down past the finely sculpted bridge of his nose, before landing at the perfect bow of his lips. "If you insist on a label, and clearly you do, then I guess you could say I'm a Mystic." He runs his palms down the crisp white tunic he wears.
"A Mystic?" My tone is as stark as my face.
He nods, making great study of the abstract, Georgia O'Keeffe–style painting of a vibrant blue lake on the far side of the room, before settling on the small, glass-tiled pool where I often bathe in a modest white gown as Axel rinses the suds from my shoulders and hair.
"Define Mystic," I say. Despite a number of prior attempts, this is the most I've ever gotten out of him, and I plan to push it as far as I can.
"One who is initiated into esoteric mysteries." He turns to me, clearly pleased with his explanation, but I'm far from satisfied.
"Would you care to elaborate, or are you being purposely vague?" I lift my chin, quirk a brow, surprised to find my sarcasm tested by the shock of his luminous grin. A grin that begins at the tip of his chin and creeps all the way to the haphazard part in his hair. A grin so open, kind, and authentic, it takes all of my will to curb the impulse to return it.
"I'm being purposely vague, there's no use denying it. So now, if the interrogation is over, perhaps we can talk about you?" Misreading my silence for surrender, he leans closer. "How are you feeling?" he asks, studying me with a concerned eye and a cool palm that travels from my brow to my cheek. Searching for signs of the fever and chills that have plagued me since I arrived in this place.
"The interrogation is never over. You should know that by now." I pull away from his touch, striving for a stern voice and the expression to match. Resolved to get at least a few of the answers I seek. "What exactly is a Mystic?" I demand.
He shutters his eyes, sighing when he says, "I'm afraid it's of a scope that is far beyond human comprehension."
"Try me." I frown. Glare. Commit to waiting for however long it takes to get him to properly answer me. But all I get in return is a view of Axel's grin. "C'mon, Axel," I plead. "Why won't you tell me what it means? Is everyone in the Upperworld a Mystic? And if so, where are they? Why haven't I seen anyone but you the whole time I've been here?"
He commits to the silence, leaving the questions to hang heavy between us.
"Fine." I breathe a frustrated sigh. "But don't think this is over. You can evade me for now, but I'll find out eventually. You're not the only stubborn one around here." I do my best to rebuff the lure of his charm, but it's no use. Even when he's not smiling, chucking a self-conscious hand through his hair, or engaging in any of his other well-practiced gestures from the "Handbook of Disarming Moves," he radiates such an abundance of genuine kindness, benevolence, and undeniable charisma, it's not long before I fold. "So, in the spirit of cooperation—which, by the way, is something you could stand to learn a thing or two about—I will answer your question by saying my fever has finally broke."
I watch as his fingers move from his lap to my cheek and then back to his lap. Captured by the way his movements cast the most glorious veil of light, bearing no hint of darkness or shadow.
"And my memory is returning," I add, noting the fleeting flicker of worry that crosses his face as his gaze returns to the painting.
"And exactly what do these memories reveal?" he asks, his voice as quiet and uncertain as I've ever heard.
I hesitate, needing a moment to decide what to say. Torn between the desire to pretend to know more than I do—if for no other reason than to gain some semblance of an upper hand—and admitting I know very little in the hope that he'll finally explain how he came to find me dying in the Lowerworld with my own athame turned against me. The double-edged blade bisecting my heart as Cade Richter moved to stake claim on my soul.
"I know there was a struggle. I know that I lost. And I was hoping you could fill in the blanks." I stare hard at his profile, willing him to turn to me, acknowledge me, but for the longest time, he favors the wall. "Fine," I say. "Keep your secrets for now. It's not like I won't find out eventually. But, if nothing else, can you please just tell me whether or not Dace is okay? I'm thinking that if I'm here in the Upperworld with you, then everyone in the Middleworld probably assumes that I'm dead. Which means that the prophecy was averted. Which also means that Dace is alive—that I was able to save him. Right?"
Axel clamps his lips so tightly it takes all of my will to keep from grabbing hold of his shoulders and shaking him until he responds. Allowing an annoyingly long drag of time to loll before he says, "I'm not keeping secrets, Daire. It's just I see no point in reliving the past when the present awaits."
"It's the past that got me here!" I cry, instantly regretting the hysterical ring to my words. I'm getting worked up. I need to rein it in. Need to rebuild my strength. These emotional outbursts never result in anything good. "How long have I been here?" I ask, casually broaching the question as though I'm only mildly curious. My attempts at keeping track have left me confused. Most of my time is spent sleeping, and the light seeping through the curtain-covered window never seems to change all that much, making it impossible to count the succession of days.
"Linear time does not exist here." Axel shrugs. "But then you already knew that." He brings a hand close to my chest, ready to move on to more pressing concerns. "May I?" His hand hovers uncertainly, awaiting permission to proceed, despite the fact that as my only caretaker this is hardly the first time he's done this.
I nestle my cheek against the pile of downy pillows with soft silken cases he's placed under my head. Embarrassed by the rush of blood that creeps up my neck and floods my cheeks as he loosens my robe until my wound is exposed.
"It's healing nicely." He skims a finger along the jagged, puckered line of angry red flesh he coaxed back together with his platinum needle and spool of golden thread. His touch reverberating straight through my core, all the way to the invisible network of scars hidden under the surface, where he worked his magick and reassembled my heart.
"How soon can I return?" I ask. It's the same question I always ask.
And like always, Axel defers. Grabbing a small glass jar from the nightstand, he repeats his usual mantra of "Not yet," as he removes the lid and places it on the glass-topped table beside me. "But soon … very soon…"
He dips a finger into the fragrant blue ointment, about to apply it to the wound, when I catch him at the wrist and push his hand away.
"I don't want it to fade," I say, rendered nearly breathless from the effort it takes to resist him. Fielding his skeptical look, I add, "Now that I remember, I can't afford to forget what landed me here."
He mutters under his breath. Some archaic language with slurred vowels and hard consonants I don't understand. Then he abandons the jar, pulls my robe closed, and with a sigh of resignation, says, "If you're entertaining thoughts of revenge, I'd advise you to quit. You'll only lower yourself to Cade's level, squelch your potential, and establish yourself as his equal. Is that what you want?"
"It's not revenge that motivates me." I clench my hands into fists, my actions betraying my words. "It's love. Dace is my only concern." At the mention of his name, my heart clenches in pain. Imagining the grief he must be feeling, not knowing the full truth of what really happened that night.
And while the exact events may continue to elude me as well, one thing is sure: I saved him.
I died so that Dace could live.
Except that I'm not really dead.
He just thinks that I am.
"Best not to think about that either." Axel turns his back in dismissal. "You need to get well. That's why you're here." He scoops an uncertain hand through his hair.
"Is that the only reason I'm here?" I prop myself higher onto my pillows, and stare hard at his back. It's an uncomfortable subject, but I need to know once and for all.
Why did he save me?
And what does he expect in return?
"What are you really asking me, Daire?" He faces me with a gaze so open, so direct, I'm instantly silenced. No longer sure how to phrase what I most want to say.
Is he a crazy stalker who took advantage of a moment of weakness in order to abduct me?
Or is he truly a Good Samaritan, a Mystic, as he claims, with only my best interests at heart?
While he's always treated me with kindness and respect, I can't help but suspect that his motives aren't entirely altruistic.
We fall into an uncomfortable, sagging silence. The kind that used to spur me to say something stupid, crack a dumb joke, but no more. I'm no longer that girl. The new Daire is patient.
She's willing to wait.
She has no other choice.
But when Axel makes for the door, I instantly regret having pushed it too far. He can't leave. Not yet. He's not the only one with an agenda here.
I lift myself until I'm almost fully upright, making an exaggerated show of breathing heavily and gritting my teeth. And just as I'd hoped, an instant later he's right back beside me.
Patience. You can do this. It's like Paloma taught you: Think from the end.
"Don't push it, Daire." Axel's fingers grab hold of my shoulders as he lowers me back toward my pillows. "Just because the fever broke doesn't mean that you're healed."
I nod as though I wouldn't dream of questioning his wisdom, the irrefutable truth of his words. "I guess I'm just feeling a little restless," I say, aiming for chagrin and hoping I'm not overdoing it. "I'm not used to being bedridden and weak, and that makes me a pretty poor patient." I make a guilty face. "It's just that, if I've any hope of leaving this place, I'll need to work on regaining my strength. The longer I lie here, the more my muscles will deteriorate. So, maybe I could try to walk for a bit. What do you think?"
I hold my breath and shoot him my most hopeful look, aiming to convince without coming off as rehearsed.
When he doesn't reply fast enough for my liking, I struggle to sit up again. Grimacing and gritting until I'm propped flushed and breathless against the headboard, begging, "Please. I need to get up and move around—take a short walk. But I need your help. I can't do it alone." I force myself to swallow the lie, but the bitterness sticks to my tongue. "C'mon, Axel, didn't you promise to heal me, rehabilitate me? Isn't that what you said?"
His brow knits, his lips pull into a frown, and I know that I've won. That he sees what I want him to see—me, clammy, breathless, and pale—making demands that betray my abilities.
I suck in a lungful of air, curl my fingers around the side of the mattress, and attempt to swing my legs over the edge. The sight of it causing him to say, "Clearly nothing I say will change your mind."
"Clearly," I whisper, indulging a small, secret smile when he secures an arm around my waist and eases me to my feet until my body is wedged hard against his.
His touch providing a reassuring strength that leaves me uneasy, reminding me of the moment he saved me. The way his lips pressed hard against mine as he snatched me from the fingers of death—restoring my life with a kiss.
The question is why?
And, more importantly, now that he's saved me, why is he hiding me?
Not a single person has dropped by the whole time I've been here. And often, when he thinks I'm asleep, I watch through slitted lids as he peers through the curtains, fingers twitching nervously at the thought of being seen.
While there's no denying the amount of care and devotion he's paid me, his reluctance to answer my questions leads me to believe his motives aren't nearly as pure as they seem. That they have less to do with his inner moral compass, and more to do with the simple fact that, for whatever reason, he couldn't bear to lose me.
Like he has a personal stake in my being.
Like I mean far more to him than I rightfully should.
A suspicion that leaves me uneasy.
My heart belongs to Dace. And if what I suspect of Axel is true, then he's turned my life into a debt I can never repay.
"Do you think you could manifest a cane?" I ask, and despite having seen him work his magick plenty of times, I still stare in unabashed wonder when a beautiful, carved-ivory cane instantly appears in my hand.
"I hope no elephants were injured in the making of this?" I grip the handle hard, testing its strength by shifting my full weight upon it.
"It came from the ether just as it will return to the ether as soon as you're through with it." He loosens his grip on my waist and allows me some space, while he hovers nearby, ready to catch me at the first hint of trouble. "So, now that you're up, where do you go from here?" His eyes glint in a way I can't read.
Is it amusement? Pride? Is it possible that he's on to me—sees right through my charade?
"You gotta have a goal, Daire. You can't hit a target you can't see."
"The door." I tip my head toward the large wooden doors with elaborate carvings as though I just now thought of it. As though I haven't spent every waking moment imagining my palms pressed hard against them, pushing toward freedom.
I slide a slow foot before me, careful to keep my weight evenly distributed. No use injuring myself further just to prove a point. Aware of Axel shadowing me, his moves perfectly mirroring mine. Until the next step when my gait falters, my legs quiver in protest, and he slips a steady arm around me and props me hard against his chest.
"You'll get there, Daire. Not to worry," he says, as I sigh in defeat, allowing my body to sag in surrender as he lowers me back to my sickbed and tucks the blankets around me. "It's just going to take a little longer than you'd like, that's all."
I give an obedient nod and slide my lids shut. Appearing to be lulled back to sleep by his whispered promise of soon, very soon …
Until the door closes behind him and I leap from my bed.
Copyright © 2013 by Alyson Noël, LLC.