“What will she do?” Jhoral asked hoarsely. His hands clenched at his sides. “It can’t be over, can it?”
Mistress Aleris shook her head. “No. She will try again.” Giving a sigh that seemed to come from her toes, she watched the empath stumble back to the head of the line. “I cannot say I am surprised. Although I knew she was ready for melding, I worried she might not be able to settle at first. She is very excitable.”
“She has much energy about her.”
The mentor looked surprised at his observation. “She does. And while she is a good girl, she’s one we’ve had some trouble with. Her bloodline is impeccable, but she never quite fit in with the others. She has a tendency to question everything. Definitely not as malleable as a normal empath.”
“If she was so much trouble, why was she not dealt with?” King Freyan asked. His brows drew together as he watched the empath make a second round of the receptors. Jhoral wondered suddenly just what was meant by the words dealt with.
“Because, Your Highness,” the austere woman replied, “of all the empaths we’ve ever had…of all I’ve trained, Lanai is the strongest.”
“Lanai?” Jhoral repeated hoarsely. “Her name is Lanai?
Mistress Aleris’s cheeks reddened. “Her name is to be kept private. I should not have said it.”
“No one in this room is in the habit of sharing secrets,” Dyas said with royal arrogance. “You should know that.”
“Of course, Prince Dyas.” But the mentor’s gaze strayed worriedly to the other prince as she spoke. “My apologies.”
Jhoral wasn’t really listening. His whole focus was on the empath who moved shakily around the small circle of waiting receptors. She was a beautiful woman, with high cheekbones, fine skin, and a wide, intelligent brow, but her face was haunted by fear. Her pink lips trembled, and a worry line appeared between her eyes, the color of which he was still unsure. Green, blue, gold…every time he thought he had it figured out, they would change again.
It was obvious the search was taking a lot from her. Each time she touched one of the women, she strained, as if trying to force a melding. When it wouldn’t work, she’d flinch, and her arms would drop. Her shoulders would droop in exhaustion, but after a moment, she’d take a deep breath and move on to the next one. It was unbearable watching her. Jhoral wanted to help…to push everyone aside and find the person she needed. His chest ached with painful sensation, and he’d never felt so helpless. This was one time his strength on the battlefield would do no good.
“What will happen if she doesn’t find one?” Dyas asked the question everyone was thinking. “Will she die?”
“She can’t die!” In spite himself, Jhoral’s voice rose. He immediately cleared his throat. “I mean…she will have another chance, won’t she?”
Mistress Aleris nodded, but her face was no longer serene. “It could be her perfect mind-mate isn’t in the circle. It is difficult to believe, but there may be other receptors out there we missed.”
“How do you find the receptors?” Jhoral kept his eyes on Lanai as she touched yet another receptor. A single tear appeared on her cheek, and he wanted to howl out his own frustration. He wanted to leap down into the room and rip her away from all that was hurting her. He wanted to protect her.
“They come to us to be examined. It is voluntary, so I suppose it’s possible this empath’s perfect match has not yet been found. But those who can be receptors are usually glad to be tested. Having an empath increases status in our society. Everyone wants one.”
“You make it sound like the latest fashion or newest toy,” Jhoral growled, forgetting diplomacy in his disgust. “Surely, she is more than that.”
“Of course, Your Highness,” Mistress Aleris said quietly, as if sensing his annoyance. She glanced apologetically at the other royals. “The empaths are an important part of our people.”
“She’s made it around the circle again,” Dyas interrupted with a sigh. “I guess that’s it then. No mind-mate here.”
Jhoral flinched at his friend’s matter-of-fact tone. “There must be more we can do.”
Mistress Aleris shook her head. “No. It is the first time such a thing has happened, but if she hasn’t found her mate by now, she is not here.” The mentor walked over to the railing and signaled the two gray-robed women standing off to the side. “She will be returned to the training house until other receptors are found.”
Jhoral watched, his stomach in knots as the empath was taken by the arms to be led out. He badly wanted to leap over the railing and go to her. To gather her in his arms and give her comfort. It took everything he had in him to just sit and watch. It didn’t make sense. By the gods, he didn’t even know her. But the desire to push everyone aside and go to her aid was so strong, he could barely contain himself.
She was so bent over from despair, she stumbled, leaning heavily on the helpers for support. But, just as she got to the door, she gave a whimpering cry and jerked away from the women. The colorful rainbow of energy surrounded her once more as she turned and raced back to the line of receptors.
Jhoral found himself on his feet as she threw her arms around the receptor nearest her and tried to find a meld. Her courage and strength of will made him want to cheer her on. The empath’s stubbornness may be abhorrent to the Kylians, but to Jhoral it was a most attractive trait. His people equated persistence with strength, and if he was any judge, Lanai was not one to give up easily. He prayed to the moon gods she would find the mate she was seeking.
Beside him, Mistress Aleris sighed. “I thought she might be difficult. Lanai never knows when to give up.”
“Farsaeans find such strength admirable.”
“Admirable, perhaps,” the older woman agreed. “But unfortunately, this time it is unfeasible. Her receptor is not here.”
That fact didn’t seem to deter Lanai. She jerked away from the hands that tried to restrain her, moving to yet another receptor to try again. Jhoral’s heart pounded with empathy, and he thought it ironic, since he still wasn’t sure he believed in the emotion. The perfectly ordered ceremony dissolved into a wrestling match as the two gray-robed women tried to force the smaller empath to leave. He watched as she fought them, stumbling from woman to woman, tears coursing down her face. His whole body tensed as if it were him fighting down there in the cold white room.
“They must catch her.” The mentor spoke softly, her voice gritty with sadness. “She will
kill herself if she continues this way.
Suddenly terrified she might do just that, Jhoral leaned over the railing. His hands clenched at the barrier so hard they hurt. “Come on, little one,” he whispered to himself. “You can do it. Don’t give up, Lanai.”
The empath went abruptly still. Complete silence filled the room as everyone froze with her. She whirled around, jerking her head up, and those ever-changing eyes met Jhoral’s. He felt the impact of her gaze like a punch in the stomach, almost reeling back from the power of it. His fingers tightened on the balustrade, his fingernails leaving marks in the soft wood. His mind felt like a mighty wind was ripping it open. The astonishment of sharing his head with another swept through him, and he groaned in shock and surprise. He didn’t even notice Dyas leap to his feet. He wasn’t aware of the appalled look on Mistress Aleris’s face. All he could see…all he could focus on was the woman who held him in her sway.
Her eyes lit up so bright he thought he would be blinded. Her smile reached out to him. Pushing away from the two women who held her, she staggered toward him, her arms outstretched.
” Her sobbing mind-voice penetrated his thoughts. “Finally, I’ve found you
Nothing could have prepared Jhoral for the tumult of emotions that enveloped him. He could barely think, he could only feel, and when Lanai pushed through the women standing below the railing, he didn’t hesitate. He reached down and took her hand.
At her touch, colors, lights, and sounds rushed at him, bombarding him with such beauty, his silver eyes widened into rainbow pools of ecstasy. The outside world fell away, and without a thought for anyone around him, he lifted her up out of the lower room and into his waiting arms.
He didn’t hear her mentor’s cries to stop. He couldn’t feel Dyas’s hand on his arm. Falling back into the comfortable chair, he pulled Lanai into his lap. Her tight robe prevented her from straddling his hips, and with a feral growl, he ripped one side of the ugly gown to midthigh. Then he pulled her close, so her slender legs were astride him, their bodies pressed together. Her gorgeous eyes never blinked as she placed her hands on both sides of his head, the thumbs below each ear. Fingertips touched him lightly, and slowly she lowered her forehead to his.
Time stood still.
He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak. The feelings swelling inside him were no longer his, but hers as well. He sensed her absolute joy that she’d found him, mingled with the fear she’d be punished—why, he didn’t know. Memories of her childhood, both good and bad, rushed through him, and he found himself reliving her years right along with her.
He watched the testing she went through when she was only a toddler. The pain and pride on her parents’ faces as they handed her over to a much-younger Mistress Aleris. The fear and confusion in tiny Lanai’s eyes when she stared back at her family as she was carried away. How could such a young child…a baby really, exist without a mother’s love?
She showed him the years she’d spent training to be an empath. The lessons, the uncertainty, and the loneliness. As she matured, he could sense the need burning inside her, coupled with a restlessness that made her unique among her kind. Her hopes and dreams—things he was told an empath couldn’t have—raced through his astonished mind.
He wanted to soothe and comfort. He wanted to protect her with a passion he’d never before felt, not even with his family. But before he could reconcile himself to that, he was stunned to see his
entire existence revealed next. His life became hers, and he was unable to move as the knowledge shot through him that he would never be alone again. Nothing was hidden. Every thought, every action he’d ever done, played through their minds with utter clarity.
It was painful. Each misdeed, each less-than-admirable thought, she saw as if it had just happened. Jhoral groaned, wishing he could go back and do everything again to make himself worthy of the beauty he now held in his arms.
But to his complete surprise, when he looked into those eyes that saw him so clearly, there was no condemnation. No disapproval or censure. All he saw was pride. All he felt was the sheer joy she knew in belonging to him. It mattered not, the bad behavior of the past. Those were trifles, done by a boy learning to be a man. Her pleasure, her absolute delight in her choice of mind-mate, filled him to the bursting and made him feel as if he were soaring through the skies. Emotion choked him as he lifted his hands and held her head as she did his.
They both gasped aloud as a brand-new emotion shot through them. Jhoral stared at her, unable to look away. His shaking fingers reached down and undid the tie at her chin. With a sharp tug, he pulled the gray cap off her head. His body tightened when hair the same color as his eyes tumbled over her shoulders down to her waist. Her lips trembled as he threaded his fingers through the silvery mass…touching…caressing. His eyes glowed and his hands tightened. Instinctively he lowered his head and covered her mouth with his.
If there had been closeness before, it was eclipsed by the sudden knowing of how right this kiss was. His thoughts were swept away by a desire so strong it made him shudder. Lanai came with him as he was taken up and away in a whirling cloud of sensation. Without even knowing how it happened, he found himself in his aerie room within his castle home of Skyros. They were both lying naked on his soft bed, the vision so real he could smell the scent of the baruna
flowers outside his window. He heard the soft music of the wind as it sang through the mountain peaks all around them.
He saw everything through a swirling mist as he looked down at her, his heart beating so fast it hurt. “How can this be?” Jhoral whispered. “How did this happen?”
Her slow smile made him burn, but she said nothing, only put her arms around him, invitation in every line of her body.
Shaking his head, he ran a finger down her soft cheek. He wanted to drown in her eyes. So bottomless, so rich in color, a man could look into them and lose himself forever. Bending, he traced his lips up her jaw. He tested the curve of her throat, and the wildness of the pulse beating there told him all he needed to know.
She was his.