He didn’t grasp her shoulders, though they were close enough that she tingled with the potential. He held himself in that deliberate stillness. “There are some things I cannot say.”
She’d already seen it. “You don’t mean can’t as in it’s complicated, do you? You mean can’t as in can’t.”
In answer, he touched the tattoo at his temple, and then the one at his nape. His fingers found those spots unerringly, as if he had a constant awareness of them.
“Someone else has that control over you?” She stepped back with the horror of it, seeing him in an entirely new light. So vital, so strong, so very capable—and yet somehow enslaved?
She could barely imagine it. She didn’t want to imagine it. But she tried.
“There’s risk,” she said slowly, feeling out the words, “not because of the other people who come through—but because whoever made those tattoos wouldn’t like it that we’re here together?”
His eyes flashed in a way that told her she hadn’t quite gotten it.
She felt her own impatience. “Well, if it’s not because of your battle buddies and it’s not because we’re meeting here, then what?” She huffed a laugh. “Me?”
He closed his eyes on what looked to be a surge of regret.
“It is,” she said in disbelief. “It’s me.”
His expression said a regretful yes.
“But why?” She blurted it out, incredulous in every bone of her body.
He spoke carefully, as if trying to tread some fine line. “Because of your—”
But she didn’t need to hear the rest of it, because she’d heard the phrase enough already. “—Singing. Oh, surely not.”
“What it does.” He managed that, short and simple.
“He can’t—” This time she was the one who stopped, responding to his flicker of surprise. “She. This dangerous person is a woman.”
His expression tightened, not aimed at her at all. A warning way.
Whatever control this woman had over Jaice Theyasa, she had best beware of what lurked beneath it. He was no tame warrior.
Arlie tested her understanding. “This woman can’t sing the doorways?”
He tested each careful word. “A person can’t be in all places at once.”
“So she can sing the doorways but she wants more.” She hardly had to guess. Anyone who would enslave warriors, who would control another individual right down to his words, was someone who would want more. Of whatever she could get.
Jaice had a remarkable capacity for reining himself into stillness. Standing there with his hands again clasped behind his back, his strength pooled into a muted physical silence that somehow did nothing at all to hide his turmoil. “I am at fault,” he said. “I was not agile enough to avoid the doorway when it first appeared. And then I…” He trailed off, looking more than a little sheepish. “I didn’t want to.”
“I didn’t want you to, either.” She said it before she could second-guess herself, offering her feelings to this man. As if he wasn’t already aware.
Or maybe he hadn’t been, for relief softened a hard mouth.
Then she managed to say, “Wait, you can see them? The doors from here to…there?”
“I can see them.” That, at least, he’d been allowed to say outright.
She managed to grow bolder. “Can you stay a little longer, then? Since you’re not in the middle of something?”
“As I can. When I can.” He stepped closer. Not touching, in a deliberate way that made her understood how much the touching would mean to him.
She lifted a hand, fingers hesitating—waiting for his permission. Nothing more than the flick of his gaze, but she’d already learned to look for that.
In a world where such expert fighting was commonplace, no doubt people avoided careless gesture.
She allowed her fingers to brush the shirt over his collarbone, marking one of the tattoos. She was no longer certain they were mere ink and skin, but perhaps…something more deeply indelible. Something more horrible.
“I understand your warning,” she said, savoring the tingle of that brief contact. “But for me, it’s too late. Do you understand that?”
His voice as imbued with the same tone as that dark, dry laughter. “Entirely.”
It was a word that gave her hope. She might well be insane…
But just maybe she was no longer alone.
She said, “So you’ll be careful. And you’ll be back.”
“I’ll be careful.” He mulled his next words; his throat moved as he tested those thoughts for speech. “There is potential,” he started, “that having been here, I can now—”
The words stopped. He muttered an imprecation.
But she’d followed the thought, if possibly through wishful thinking. “—Find your own way?”
His frustration turned to gratitude, all in a glance. “It is a reasonable hope.”
“Hope,” she echoed, and something in his expression reminded her of their nearness—his eyes darkening to the color of aged whisky, his gaze tightly focused on her face. His renewed tension thrummed through her own nerves, sending them into an overload of awareness.
His scent, touched with ginger and spice; his warmth, drawing her in with the inexorable pull of gravity.
And his intention. Jaice’s lashes shadowed his cheek as she lifted her mouth to him.
But he jerked back with a surprised sound, his expression first startled and then furious.
“No!” she protested.
But he winced, flinching back from some invisible blow, already half-turning for the spot from which he’d emerged, his expression both torn and stoically resigned. “If I come between,” he said, “I will leave you sign.”
And then he straightened his shoulders, lifted his head, and stepped through the slope and away.
Arlie thought that lift of his head looked like a dare. She wondered if the woman knew exactly what she had.
Over the weeks, the singing tree told the tale of Jaice’s efforts. Mere days weeks after she’d returned home humming from the promise of his touch, Arlie found a colorful strip of cloth hanging from the singing tree. It was a thing of exquisite workmanship, colorful watercolor splashes embroidered in tiny stitched flowers.
She tied her hair back with it, and the unfamiliar material neither slipped nor tugged.
She left for him a jar of crystallized ginger candy, because it reminded her of him.
She found a lacquered box of bright inlay and unfamiliar designs, and inside lay a single exquisite candied flower, all subtle, shifting color and sweeping petals.
She left a strong tea of puehr and subtle caramel overtones.
Then one evening halfway between Beltane and summer solstice, she lifted from a piñon branch a complicated little knot of some dried and twisted bark, fine enough to be threads and strong enough to be the tree itself. As she ran her thumb over the charm of it, unaccountably moved, the hillside roared in awakening and two figures burst through—locked in tumbling battle with a grim brutality.
One figure was immediately familiar in movement and form, and the other…
Not even human. Not with those sinuous limbs and that whipping tail, the sunshine bright on sleek blued scales and ropy saliva slinging free from gaping jaws and sharp teeth.
It had Jaice down. It had him gasping, struggling beneath its larger form, his precise blows making little impact. Arlie scrabbled in the gear bag and came up with the Taser as she plunged down the slope.
They weren’t rolling around any longer. They’d locked into the final moments of this fight as the beast strained to close its jaws around Jaice’s face and Jaice trembled with the effort of holding it back.