Cole entered the left hall beside the staircase and avoided the merry cherubs that lined the walls. His mother may have taken great care to decorate with ethereal elegance, but he could do without the cheer.
He paused as he reached for the light switch inside the study. The sheer movement sent him back to the family’s arrival at Cornerstone Deep as his father had refused to allow magic for mundane actions. Then, however, it was the igniting of an oil lamp.
A lazy man uses magic for such things.
Cole flipped it on and grinned as he heard the switch click. Light poured from the circular chandeliers that hung from the high arched ceiling.
Veering right, he walked behind the oversized desk and scanned the shelves of ancient tomes. His gaze gravitated to the three crystal globes at the center; gifts to each son from the gods of Meridian—a rare honor, indeed. Upon receipt of the first, his parents knew they would be blessed with two more children. What greater call than to be a family destined to travel the realms as overseers, protectors of the gateway to the planes?
The crystals’ iridescent surfaces gleamed. A mix of bitterness and reverence churned in his stomach. How could he have known their assignment to a Cornerstone realm would take over half their term of service? How could he have dreamed he’d meet his soul mate here in a dimension that offered no way for them to reunite? His heart ached for Meridian, his home, his repose. Yet, his soul cried for a miracle that would allow the rebirth of his love in this frigid world that bred cold, power-seeking hearts.
He placed his palm over the cool curve of his globe. It warmed and glowed at his touch. They had set idle since before his father’s death and would most likely stay that way. The Triad of Focus needed to call on the Trinity’s power was unlikely, sighting Vincent’s temper. Cole scoffed at the thought.
He turned and ran a finger along the side of the cherry-wood desk. Its smooth surface cast an unbroken aura, the spell cast by his mother to keep the furnishings protected holding strong. Her voice sang in his memory as she spent many warnings on Vincent. “Things are so fragile here. You must learn to control your temper, young one.”
A snort rode his breath at the recollection. The words had only irritated Vincent more. To add to the annoyance, Cole had christened him with the nickname Kid.
The master’s chair stood untouched. He’d never taken his place there when his father passed, feeling it required a rite of passage. Now however, the need to accept his position as Head of the Sentinels pressed on him with a weight of eternal consequences. He’d bound a soul and he knew as well as his brothers did that this time he’d gone too far.
A wide set of shelves framed the marble hearth along the east wall, displaying magical charms once owned by his father. From bulbous silver canisters to crystal vials, Cole knew each carefully placed one.
He stepped to the display and selected a shallow plinth topped with several golden circlets. His gaze flitted to the family’s Candle Vignette and he paused. Picking up the beloved cylinder, small comfort lighted on his heart. He touched the intrusion at the top with his fingertip and a pulse of information crossed his mind.
Mianna Shilo, sixteen forty-two, second quarter, twenty-third day.
A smile touched his lips. Setting the items on the desk, he heaved a breath and took his rightful place in the master’s chair. He passed his hand over the tripod plinth and the first golden circlet lifted, tilting back at an angle. The mirror within sparkled as the second level rose and clicked into position, making the two look like lazy spectacles. Once in place, the final circle leaned back, creating a tulip-shaped stage.
The Utopian awaited his command.
“Spying on a Grand Marshal’s subject.” A rumble rattled his throat as he pulled it closer. Disrespectful in the least. But his brothers’ rebuttals aside, his actions troubled him more than the concern for a lord’s privacy.
Why the kiss?
He waved his finger at the instrument and the scene in the alley played forth above the circle of mirrors. She was frightened—a common reaction. He watched the crystallites mesmerize her and cause her to yield and breathe. Then she looked at him.
Cole flushed as he recalled the moment. A bid had touched his soul and he responded with a breath of awe. Threads of his existence tugged him to her and before he knew it, he lifted from the kiss.
It was like a homecoming: the taste of her tongue, its soft caress, and sweet call. Time disappeared, and in that moment, his spirit soared—and it resulted in the Zephyrus breeze of shared breath.
Cole glanced at the large tapestries of Meridian that hung on the wall beside him. Wasn’t reincarnation limited to that gifted central realm? His experience couldn’t be possible—not here in Cornerstone Deep. Yet it matched the call of a reuniting.
Snatching the Vignette, he passed his hand over the instrument. An amber flame fluttered to life, a still-life portrait undulating within its faded margin. He stared at the big blue eyes that gazed at him. How many times had he viewed it, that innocent face framed by long dark brown ringlets?
His gaze shifted to the harvest subject of the night before. The similarity was there. The way she looked into his soul was there.
A cold shard pierced his heart.
Dear Arylin, Goddess of Love. “It can’t be.”
~ * ~
Cole glanced at the morning beams of sunlight as they poured through the gap in the drapery. He squinted away the sting in his tired eyes. His cheek felt numb where he’d braced it with his fist all night while watching Anna’s image sleep above the Utopian.
He dragged his hand over his face and then heaved a sigh. “I hate it when you do that.”
He glanced at the door. “Just appear there and stand watching.”
James smiled. “I didn’t just appear. I walked here and leaned on the door frame.”
“Okay, I hate it when you just stand there and watch me.”
“You’ve been in here all night.”
“Is it that obvious?”
Cole wiped his hands over his head, smoothing his long hair. Avoiding the surprise in James’ emotions at Cole’s choice of taking the Master’s position, he pointed at a chair in front of the desk. “Have a seat. I need to talk to you.”
James strolled over and sat down, lounging into the familiar counsel pose.
Despite his rash disposition of the evening before, he knew he could speak openly to this brother. In truth, his even-temperament was what kept the three Shilo brothers together. He waved at the door and it closed with a soft click. “Kid doesn’t need to hear this.”
“He’s in the next room. Better to seal the study. Eko silyst.”
The air thickened and pressed on Cole’s eardrums. Though it was the most secure form of communication, other than thought sharing, he wished James didn’t rely on the charm as much as he did. But, years of practice didn’t seem to help his lack of skill at telepathy.
Cole leaned his elbows on the desk. “About Lord Dressen’s order.”
How do I explain this? “His calling for a curfew breaker as opposed to an individual in need of security.”
“Yes.” James set his elbows on his knees and pursed his lips.
A quirk tugged at Cole’s cheek. “Then there was the requirement of total control.”
“I assume it’s due to the fact the subject was a law-breaker and he wanted to assure good behavior. But, I think it bothered Vincent the most. He never even considered what you did last night an option.” He motioned to the Vignette on the desk. “Have you been consulting Father’s chronicles? You know you won’t find soul binding in any of them.”
“No. I knew there would be nothing like that among them.” Cole reached for the stout record keeper and passed a finger over the cleft. The picture of his love appeared in a flame.
James lowered his gaze. “Mianna.”
Swallowing the swell in his throat, Cole looked at the cherubic face. “James, I never considered what I did last night an option either.” As he looked at his brother, he sent his thought’s voice to reinforce his spoken words. “I didn’t intentionally seal that spell.”
James’ brow tightened.
“When she looked at me, I felt her soul call to me and I went to her. I didn’t inhale the spell to seal it with a kiss. I took a breath to relieve the intense…” he lifted his hand, trying to find the right words. How could he explain the innate connection, the call of a familiar soul to another in a realm known to have no rebirth?
He shook his head and picked up the Vignette. “I kissed her, James. And when I did—Gods, I didn’t want to stop. We shared a breath of Zephyrus, and it wasn’t like anything I’ve experienced since…”
Cole dragged his hand across his face and then looked James squarely in the eyes. “Take a close look at Mianna’s picture.”
James leaned over the desk and studied the innocent features of his past sister-in-law. He sighed and looked back at Cole.
“Now, look at the girl we just harvested.” He passed a hand over the sleeping image and the scene in the alley appeared. Motioning with his index finger, he singled out Anna as she looked at him before the kiss.
James’ features softened, but he met Cole with a resolute gaze. “No. That wasn’t Mianna, Cole. You know that’s not Mianna.”
“No, James, I don’t know.” Cole shot to a stand and rubbed a hand across his chest. Hearing his contemplations aloud set anxiety in his heart and seemed to solidify the truth. He paced to the far end of the room, trying to settle the knots in his stomach. “I watched her all night. There are similarities. Things only she did, things so deeply ingrained that they’re instinctive.”
James stood and met him at the picture window. His head leaned to the side, compassion seeping from his emotions. “Cole, people do a lot of things similarly.”
He allowed his heavy tone to accentuate his words. “Not these things.” He marched back to the desk. “I’m not talking about how a woman tosses her hair or scratches her nose.”
His lips curled into a sneer. “It’s not unusual for a servant’s position to evolve into mistress.”
“And never has a Grand Marshal posted an order with intent of using the subject as a Chamber Maid.”
James flushed. “No.”
He stepped aside to allow James full view of the hologram. Blankets bunched as Lord Dressen rolled with his new servant and then buried his face in the waves at her neck. A low growl sounded from the reenactment.
Cole spoke through clinched teeth. “He went to her last night. The first night she was there.”
James looked away.
“In her naïve state, he had his way with her. She responded just as you said. By pure instinct.” He glanced at the couple then held up a hand to halt the movement. “I want you to look at this. And I want you to listen very closely to what she says.”
Distaste flashed in James’ eyes as he stepped to the desk. “Really, Cole.”
Ignoring the aversion in his brother’s tone, Cole lowered his finger to allow the scene to play forth. The innocent harvest subject threw her hands to her keeper’s back and created a triangle with her fingers and thumbs. Her voice rang clear as she cried, “Unsigh, Colhart!”
Cole dropped his hand to brush along the desk. The image stilled, and he looked at his brother.
James returned his gaze. “One heart, Cole.”
“The spell I created for Mianna. The joining of emotions for shared passion. She kept it in her being all this time. Without realizing it, she recites a spell that will call on the passion of one man.”
Levels of intertwined confusion, anger, sympathy, and shock emanated from James as he looked away. “You honestly think she used to be your wife.”
Taken aback by the absurd question, Cole raked his fingers through his hair. “What do you mean think? Doesn’t that just prove it?”
“Reincarnation doesn’t exist in this dimension, Cole. Father tried for years to find Mother. She had to have heard those words somewhere.”
“Father admitted it could have been because she held Meridian blood and we were in a foreign realm.” He grabbed the Vignette and then held it an inch from his brother’s face. “That’s in his chronicles.”
James lowered his gaze and set his hands on his waist. “Please don’t break that. It’s intricate.”
Fire flared in Cole’s gut, and he grasped the magical album tighter to hold to his temper. He turned with a brittle huff and set the treasure back on the desk with a sharp clunk. “That’s it? You’re worried about how hard it will be to reassemble a picture album when… When I just bound the soul of the only woman I ever really loved.”
“You can’t think that way. Whatever happened, happened to a lawbreaker. Not the ghost of your memory.” James straightened and met his gaze. “Father only searched for Mother because she did have Meridian blood. Her soul was born to a realm of rebirth. A Utopian would register it. Cornerstone Deep didn’t allow her reincarnation.”
“Do we really know that? All this time we believed it, but now I’m not convinced.” He angled his head to emphasize his words. “I know that woman’s soul called to me. And I know it was Mianna’s.”
“Don’t do this to yourself. Don’t add to your guilt of binding the soul by believing that it was hers. It wasn’t. Mianna died long ago. She lived a full, meaningful life and loved you to the end. Remember her with love. Don’t try to convince yourself Anna is an extension of your life with her.”
Cole scowled and tore his gaze away. “I can’t do that, James. You don’t realize. It was too natural.”
James heaved a sigh. “Okay. You can’t set it aside. But, you have to take control of these feelings. You said it last night. What’s done is done.”
“You know by now I was just standing my ground against Kid. I didn’t mean to bind her soul.”
“What you said still holds true.”
The words stung. Cole swallowed hard as a lump wedged in his throat.
James glanced at the door. “Coneko silyst.”
The room’s atmosphere returned to its freedom as the silencing spell lifted.
“Try to get some sleep. I’ll check the remaining orders.”
James left the room and abandonment filled Cole’s heart. What did he expect from confiding in James anyway?
He looked at the stilled scene over the Utopian. Wretched name for the instrument. There was nothing Utopian about it. It only showed his error. No matter what his brother’s view of the matter, he knew what had happened; and he knew that his reaction bound the only soul that had ever touched his.
Cole picked up the instrument and stared at the image displayed. In his three life cycles, he’d truly only known one woman. One who spoke so clearly to his soul as to cause him to react on instinct that matched breathing.
He scowled at the Grand Marshal’s obvious pleasure at having the girl and waved his hand at the sight. The scene faded.
Mumbled voices reached him from the hall, and Cole widened his perception to pick up on the emotions surrounding the conversation.
Frustration, disgust. Vincent.
He listened harder.
“I felt that silencing spell lock the room like a tomb.”
Pity. James. “Cole has some things he needs to work out.”
“I bet he does.”
“Okay. There’s a new bid from Lord Craven for kitchen support and we need to settle on who to harvest for Dressen’s stable worker bid.”
Vincent sighed. “Last time I was at the park, I caught wind of a traveler hanging around. I’m meeting Elaina there. I’ll check him out, but you’ll have to do a search for Lord Craven’s. This guy didn’t look like the cook type.”
“You’ve been spending a lot of time with her. How serious is this getting?”
“Serious. I’m not like someone else I know who uses and leaves ’em. It’d help his disposition to have a steady relationship. But who listens to me?”
“He has his reasons.”
A flood of appreciation warmed Cole at James’ supportive words.
“James, this last woman is the longest I’ve seen him in a relationship since his last wife. Outliving them is just part of being who we are. Even if we’re lucky to have real love for a few years before we lose it, it’s worth it opposed to living life alone.” The deep whiz of a jacket zipper sounded. “By the way, you seeing anyone? Other than escorting every beauty with hopes of snagging you, that is.”
“I have an interest. But, I don’t need advice from my little brother on how to love a woman.”
“Right. How do I look?”
“I don’t suppose you can do anything about that hair. So, you’ll do.”
Cole chuckled to himself.
“Can’t help it if I was blessed with Father’s good looks.”
“Yeah, well, Father let his grow into waves and didn’t leave it to look like Medusa.”
In true Vincent fashion, his demeanor shifted from night to day. “Elaina doesn’t seem to mind. Gives her something to play with.”
“I don’t need to know.”
Vincent laughed. “I’m meeting her family today. Her sister’s in town and they’re having a gathering. I hear her father’s quite an individual, so wish me luck.”
Cole stepped into the hall to get a clearer sense of the discussion. If he knew the youngest at all, this meant he was ready to further the relationship.
James stepped to the front door with Vincent. “Have you discussed anything with this girl yet?”
Vincent looked at him, and his features softened. “She knows we manipulate the elements. I got her word of secrecy.”
“You feel you can trust her?”
“I trust her, but I’m not stupid.” He pulled a wristlet from his pocket. “I’m gifting her a promise band today.”
“You are serious.”
“She’s the one, James. If she accepts the promising, I’m going to tell her everything. And I know she will.” He ran his finger over the cluster of champagne diamonds imbedded in the gold band.
“Make sure she understands the binding before you place it on her wrist.”
“I know how it all works. I’ve never had a problem with the women I’ve chosen.” Vincent pocketed the treasure and turned for the door. “But don’t worry. I’ll cover it all. We’ll stroll the park before we head over to meet her family. I’m sure there’s a harvest subject there for Dressen.”
“You have your scrying lens?”
He pulled up his jacket sleeve to show the blue sheen of tiny symbols on his watch. “Always.”
Leaning into his step, Cole let his lazy stride clunk down the hall and then shuffled to a stop. “And where are you off to, Kid?”
Vincent spun to face him and held his arms wide. “To experience life’s sweet love, brother. My heart is out there, and I don’t want to keep her waiting. So, I’d better be off.”
James smiled, forcing his dimples to crease his cheeks, as Vincent bowed a gilded respect to the eldest of the house. With a flick of his hand, he dispersed into the Smoke of Night. The front door flung open, and his essence shot out onto the sunny grounds as a dark cloud of dust.
Cole shouted after him. “Be back by dusk! We have work to do.”
As Vincent circled the center fountain, a distinct sense of mockery flew through Cole. He glared and watched Kid dart across the yard and over the hedge toward town.