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Helia stared into the sunset, forcing herself to keep her eyes open, though they watered. Yala sank from the heavens, sliding away beneath the sting of Helia’s tears; the crimson cooling to violet as the night awoke.
“Come back to me, Helianthus.”
Her shoulders rippled beneath the heat of his breath. He drew aside her ebony braids, so long that the ends, wrapped in gold, brushed her bare waist. When his lips found her neck, she ducked, obliging him with the sweet giggle that he craved. She turned into him, hissing through her teeth as he gathered her hair in his fist, scraping her nails over his bare back in what she needed him to believe was feigned protest.
He melted, giving himself to her theater, her artistry, learned over years of servitude. She knew his needs better than she knew her own, better than she knew a family left behind, better than she knew a boy who had once been her shadow…
He tugged her hair, reminding her that all of her focus must be on him. She forced a gasp, laying back her head. “Yes, your Highness.”
It was deep into the night; not long before the smaller sun, Naris, made her searing blue wink over the horizon. Helia stole through the tunnels as if the Sentinels’ trackers were snapping at her heels, but it was not fear that drove her. She splashed through the fetid water, ignoring the heavy air of poverty that characterized the outer boroughs. Just a little farther. She came to a dead end, her lantern sputtering.
“Helia!” The whisper was overjoyed. “You came.”
She looked up in time to see the ceiling above her slide away, revealing a dark silhouette against a blaze of stars. A hand reached down, a black serpent tattoo winding from the web of the palm around the wrist and up the strong, dark forearm. She took it, gasping as she was swung upward and onto her feet like she was only a wisp. As if I were still that skinny street rat, she thought.
“Maron!” She embraced her brother breathlessly. “Of course I came. How could I stay away when I’ve finally found you again?” Despite her prior vow to focus on the positives of her visit, tears pricked at her eyes.
Maron held her at arms length, taking her in, as she did the same. She’d seen her brother only at a distance until now. He was almost a man rather than the scruffy child she’d left behind. His dark hair was long, nearly as long as hers, the single braid worn from the crown in the style of the streets. The tattoo of their clan, the claw of the dragon, ran from his right temple to his jaw. She traced it with her fingertips. “I’m sorry that I missed your Marking Ceremony, Maron.”
He caught her hand and kissed it, tears gleaming in his dark eyes. “No, I’m sorry, sister.” He hung his head, his hand now trembling. “I can’t explain the depth of my sorrow.”
Her heart twisted like the serpent climbing his arm. “It wasn’t your fault, Maron. And it was a long time ago.” She cupped his cheek, forcing him to meet her gaze. “I’m well cared-for, as you see. I want for nothing.”
“Nothing but your freedom,” he said, turning away. “I’m sorry. I promised myself that I would make you smile tonight, given that I might never get the chance again.”
“Then let’s smile, brother.” She spun him to face her, winding her arm in his. “Now…I understand that you have a surprise for me.”
Maron’s eyes squeezed into the half-moons Helianthus remembered and she bit her tongue, suppressing the memory of his ninth birthday…the last birthday she was there to see. Now he was sixteen and she was…well, she was only going to get a few hours with him. She needed to concentrate on that. He led her through the once-familiar warrens of the slum. It was all so wrong somehow. She’d expected to know her way with her eyes closed, but things had changed: shops had closed and families moved on. It wasn’t her home anymore.
Maron patted her arm. “Let me catch you up on some things.”
He whispered to her, selecting highlights from seven years of neighborhood gossip: Tino’s goat getting stuck in the sluice and having to be soaped up to be freed…old man Lansa’s acquisition of a trinkets stall at the market, the realization of the a lifelong dream. Helianthus drank it all in, savoring each scent, each texture, each lilt in her brother’s voice or curl of his lips.
She squeezed his arm as they laughed quietly, taking care not to draw attention. This borough’s hatred for the Emperor should have protected her in a way; after all, she was one of them. But they wouldn’t believe that now, she thought. Not with the finest crimson kohl lining her green eyes, nor with the shimmering cerulean robe - the simplest she owned - wound around her decorated body, the hours of filigreed body stain screaming, “Palace Whore.”
She lowered her head and focused on her brother, watching him from beneath her lashes. At first she’d seen only his eyes, the wide, dark pools the same as she’d remembered. But now she saw the strong brow, the cleft chin, the hawk’s nose. He looks just like Papa. Her heart ached and she shifted her attention to his words, to the merriment he forced to mask the vise-like grip on her arm and the disbelief in his eyes when he saw her walking beside him.
“Sister,” he said, stopping. “I have to do something very hard, but,” he paused, his teeth working at his lip, “it’s the right thing to do.” His eyes were glued to the ground. “I wish I could keep you to myself tonight…that I could take you to Mother.”
Her heart began to pound. For the tiniest of moments, she thought… No! Maron wouldn’t betray me. He wouldn’t. There had to be some other explanation. “You can’t? But why, Maron?” Her voice cracked, despite her efforts to keep it even. She’d spent weeks imagining the look on her mother’s face when she gave her a kiss, when she held her in her arms and smelled the air of coriander and sweet paprika that was her constant perfume.
He met her eyes, his own shining once again. His lips tugged at the corners. “Because someone else is first in line.”
She froze, her heart the only moving part within her. It skittered, like a water strider rocked by a cutter’s wake. The name was enough. But the voice was wrong. It was a rich, honeyed baritone. She hardly felt it as Maron pressed his lips to her hand.
“Take care my sister. Hopefully this visit won’t be your last.”
“Give Mama my love,” she choked, as he disappeared around the corner.
The air went still. She could feel him behind her, just as still as the air. “Jareth.” She wanted to turn around, to see the boy who’d chased the Sentinels as they stole her away. She could still feel his golden eyes boring into her as he launched stones until they’d fired their weapons, sending him sprawling. She shivered. At least he lived.
“Aren’t you going to look at me, Lia?”
His voice was warm, as if he meant to tease her, but the tremble gave him away. She turned, slowly, gripping the flimsy fabric of her robe to steady her hands. When she raised her eyes, she gasped and then covered her mouth, embarrassed. He was a stranger. Her Jareth was gone and in his place was a man.
His coarse black hair was pinned up in double loops and secured with leather straps. His caramel skin glowed in the soft lights of the ever-present, ever-open bars that lined the streets. Her eyes couldn’t settle; they jumped from the broad shoulders to the chiseled waist, to the full head of height that he now had on her.
“Suns, Lia.” His hands reached for her and then pulled back, wrestling with one another.
She dropped her head, hiding behind her cascade of braids, each woven with a different sparkling thread. He disapproves. Her olive cheeks flushed. Of course he does. Her eyes traveled to her hands, adorned, like every inch of her, in a winding array of Lapsum-stained birds, flowers, and curlicues… She pulled them up inside the sleeves of her robe. “I’m sorry, Jareth. Maybe this was a mistake.” She couldn’t look at him.
His feet appeared in her line of sight as he stepped closer, the gleaming sandals drawing her attention for the first time. They laced up the side, in a cross-lariat style. Her head flew up. “You…” She stopped, her eyes now catching every detail: the engraved breastplate, the copper cuff circling his left bicep, and the tattoo circling his right: two suns overlapped, one small, bright circle against a darker giant. “You’re a Sentinel?”
“It’s not what you think, Li.” His strong brow knitted.
Li. As if Lia weren’t enough. Her stomach twisted, leaping to life in a way she hadn’t felt in… Too long.
His hand darted forward, an animal loosed, grabbing hers from its hiding place within her sleeve. “It’s all for you, Li. And for them.” He gestured to the sleepy hollows surrounding them.
“What?” She couldn’t take her eyes off her hand, so small in his. This wasn’t what she’d imagined, but then, how could she have imagined Jareth as he was now? She cringed at the glint of her jeweled rings, the clink of her bangles. “I don’t understand.”
“Li, I…” He exhaled hard and the hand ran away, smoothing his hair. “Suns, I want to hold you.”
She knew why he was hesitant; why he worried that a man’s touch was the last thing she wanted. And though it was true to the boy she’d always known, that sensitive heart, his concern burned her like Naris in her zenith, drawing out her flaws, her hidden fractures.
“Does he hurt you, Lia?”
His thumb ran across the back of her hand, making her shiver. The lightest of touches, she thought. That’s my Jareth. That was Jareth cradling a newborn Sandbeest, that was Jareth giving his sister a hand up the mountain scree, that was Jareth…the night before she was taken, when he’d brushed his lips with hers and the world had exploded into dragon’s fire. Does he hurt me? “Not anymore,” she answered honestly, her eyes finding the ground once more. “He’s learned to be gentle.”
Jareth released her hand and she bit back a sob. How had this night gone so wrong? Suddenly the air was crushed from her chest as Jareth threw his arms around her.
“I’m sorry, Lia.” He cradled her head, burying his face in her neck. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t stop him.”
His voice cracked, bringing tears to her eyes, and in a moment they switched and she was comforting him, holding him up while he fought his tears. “Shhhh, Jareth. I’m fine.” She stroked his back, trying not to dwell on the stone swell of his shoulder, the muscular shift of his spine. “I’m fine, as you see. I’m alive. I’m the picture of health.” She stared deep into his golden eyes, begging him to understand. The last thing she wanted was his pity.
He nodded and released her slightly, his hands settling in the sway of her back. “You’re the picture of Naris herself.”
His voice was reverent, trembling, and his eyes gleamed. She wished she could step away, out of the sweep of that searching gaze. He was looking for the girl that he used to know beneath all the paint and silk…the girl with the frizzy hair and skinny legs, with only the hint of curves to come. “No, Jareth.” She reached up and touched his chin, startling at the rasp of beard beneath her fingertips. “I’m just your Lia.”
His face crumpled and his mouth met hers, pressing hard enough that she felt his teeth before he pulled back, finding the soft touch that was him. For a moment she was flown back, a thirteen-year-old girl hiding in the potter’s stall with her best friend who had grown into something...else.
Her legs quaked as his lips parted hers gently and she moaned, snapped back to reality. His hands shook at her waist, like horses at the ready. Her mouth brushed his ear and he breathed hard, pressing himself to the wall at their back, and clutching her to him. He still smelled of sage and she drank him in, pressing into him, unwilling to let an atom of space come between them.
“I love you, Lia,” he breathed, his voice catching as her hands skimmed his thighs. “I never stopped loving you.”
He hoisted her into his arms and her eyes flicked to the horizon over his shoulder. The sky was a warm, liquid indigo. “No,” she whispered, drawing Jareth’s attention away from her jaw, where he’d been trailing hungry kisses. His eyes followed hers and he cursed. Naris was rising. Helia’s eyes filled as she slid from his arms.
“You have to come back, Lia,” he said, grabbing her hands. “I have to see you again. Purse can arrange it, he said so.”
Her heart soared, buoyed by the thought that this might not be her lone flight from her cage. She nodded, wiping away her tears and grabbed him in a last kiss. It was warm, round and full, the kind of kiss that needed no words. She broke away, gasping, and ran.
That was beautiful, Rachel!
I'm honored that you shared this here.
Truly, thank you!
And for those of you who are now Rachel E. Fisher converts, you can delve in here: