Authors: Heather Brewer
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Love & Romance, #Fantasy & Magic, #Action & Adventure, #General
The old shed looked exactly the same on the inside as my imagination had conjured up. Dozens of shelves lined the walls, all filled with various gardening instruments. There was barely room to step inside, thanks to all the spare pots taking up residence on the floor. There wasn’t a single glove in sight, but there were bags of mulch and some pruning shears, so with a deep sigh, I gathered my supplies and got to work.
There was a lot to be said about pruning rosebushes, and every one of those things could be spelled with three letters. Two hours of pruning back thorny bushes, mulching the roots, and removing dead leaves had left my hands bloody and sore, with bits of thorn stuck here and there on the tips of my fingers. I brushed a stray hair from my eyes with the back of my hand and sighed with relief to see Maddox approaching from the west side of campus. I looked to Mr. Gareth and he gave me the nod to get out of here and back to the dorms. I could hardly wait to sink into a hot bath. My stomach rumbled loudly, reminding me that food would be a good idea too.
The sun had begun to set and if I hadn’t been in pain and seriously ticked off at Darius’s attitude—not to mention flabbergasted at why I was being punished in the first place—I would have taken in the beautiful scenery around me. But all I wanted, all I really wanted, was for Maddox to walk me back to my room, so I could eat, bathe, and sleep.
Maddox picked a leaf from my hair and shook her head. “You look awful.”
That’s what I needed to hear. “Thanks.”
“You should at least pick the dead leaves off and maybe wash your hands and face before you see Trayton.”
My eyes went wide. Trayton! I had totally forgotten we had plans tonight. I looked down. My hands were covered with dirt. My clothes were stained with mulch and grass. I could only imagine what my face and hair must have looked like. Like some crazy forest woman, I was sure.
Maddox smirked. “You look great. I’m sure Trayton absolutely goes for that lost-in-the-woods-for-a-week look.”
“Do we have time to stop by my room, so I can clean up and change?”
“No, but let me put it this way. If he’s attracted to you looking like this, he’s a keeper.”
We hurried to the courtyard, and my heart sank to find it empty. I had really been looking forward to
getting to know Trayton…even if I had totally forgotten about our plans. Maddox eyed me quietly for a moment, and then said, “The plus side is that he won’t see your hair.”
I got the feeling Maddox didn’t have many friends.
Combing my hair back with my fingers and fixing my ponytail, I sighed. “Well, at least I can get something to eat.”
“The dining hall is closed.”
My day couldn’t get much worse at this point. I was being Bound forever tomorrow morning to a boy I hadn’t even had a five-minute conversation with. My teachers hated me. I was forced to work in that horrible rose garden all because Darius—what? Didn’t like my presence? And now, I couldn’t even get a measly ham sandwich. Topping it off with how much I missed my parents, I found myself fighting back tears.
“There you are.” A voice from behind me. Warm and vaguely familiar. I swallowed my tears and turned around. Trayton crossed the flagstone and held out a leather satchel. “I grabbed you some food. Figured you might be hungry.”
A smile curled my lips. It was touching in that he-wouldn’t-let-me-starve way.
Before I could say anything, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned to see Darius crossing the courtyard toward the small cottage there. When
he saw Maddox, Trayton, and me, his steps slowed. He hunched his shoulders up and growled. “It’s a half hour until curfew. I’d hate to have to dole out more extra duties today.”
But something told me he wouldn’t hate it at all. His tone sounded almost eager.
Trayton didn’t look worried. Maybe he’d never had the luxury of an afternoon spent weeding the garden before. My palms were still stinging. With a small smile, Trayton said, “In that case, we’d better hurry.”
He took off at a run and I bolted after him, forgetting the pain in my knees and palms, breathless as we ran across campus. I threw a glance over my shoulder to Darius, who wasn’t bothering to watch after us.
Trayton and I ran across the commons and finally, in a fit of laughter, reached a large, round building. Trayton opened the door and a man inside said, “Trayton, I’m just closing up.”
“Please. My Healer is here and she loves to read. Fifteen minutes, no more. I promise.”
The man sighed, as if he were powerless to refuse Trayton’s whim. “All right. Fifteen. But lock up on your way out.”
The man dropped a second set of keys on the desk and walked out, and Trayton turned to my guard. I was the only one still trying to catch my breath from our sprint. “Maddox, may we have a moment?”
“Alone?” Maddox’s defenses were up. I could tell by the way she slanted her eyes. “You’re seriously asking me to break Protocol after I just got my head handed to me by the headmaster this morning?”
Trayton smiled and I could see what a charmer he was. “Come on, Maddox. We’re supposed to be Bound tomorrow and we haven’t even had a short, private conversation. We won’t do anything, just talk. I give you my word. We won’t even touch.”
Maddox flicked her eyes to me, then back to Trayton, and groaned. “I don’t know.”
“I’ll owe you one. Seriously.”
do you mean a new head? Because if we get caught, mine’s getting bitten off.” Maddox folded her arms in front of her, tapping her foot as she mulled over his offer. Finally, she sighed in exasperation and threw her arms up. “Fine. But you owe me big-time. Don’t forget it. I’ll be right outside. No touching. Not until after your binding tomorrow.”
Trayton reached inside for the light switch. I was no way near prepared for what was coming.
A giant, golden chandelier hung from the ceiling, dripping with crystals. It cast a warm glow over the entire room. Rich, ornate rugs covered the hardwood floors. And if it weren’t for the obvious, I would have doubted that I was in a library at all. The walls were covered with immense, dark bookcases, each lined with hundreds and hundreds of books, their spines soft and
faded with age. More shelves stood like a maze in the middle of the room, and through it was a smattering of cozy chairs and small tables topped with lamps which spilled soft light into the darkened maze. To the right of the front desk a spiral staircase wound its way to a loft area—the steps were marble and wide, which led me to believe the library often had droves of students eager to make the climb to what awaited them above.
Trayton stepped forward slowly, as if asking my permission with his hesitancy. I met his eyes, so dark, so full of questioning. He looked so fragile, like he’d been hurt before. The last thing I wanted was to be responsible for causing Trayton any pain. I smiled and followed him inside.
His eyes instantly brightened. “Come on. It’s upstairs.”
We climbed the stairs at a moderate pace, and I marveled at how beautiful the library was. The ceiling was an immense glass dome, something I hadn’t noticed from downstairs. As we climbed higher, I noticed that some of the glass ceiling panels were stained glass, miniature portraits among crystalline squares.
Once upstairs, I saw what drew the attention of so many students, the purpose of the stairs being so wide, and the reason that the handrail was careworn. An enormous fireplace commanded the far end of the room. In front of it were several velvet sofas. Large, fluffy pillows and cushions lay here and there, as if students
were quite comfortable sitting on the floor. And then, a dreamer’s room come true. Whereas the bookshelves downstairs were filled with textbooks and works of academia, the shelves up here, though much smaller, were overflowing with hundreds of works of fiction, as far as the eye could see. In the corner was another bookcase, this one filled with sketchbooks and tumblers stuffed with drawing implements. An enormous tapestry that seemed to trace the war’s history stood guard between the restroom doors at the back of the loft, and I was instantly transported back home. Back to where I read a new book every week, just for fun. Back to where my father sketched and my mother did her needlepoint.
My chest ached. I missed them so much.
Trayton said, “By the look on your face, I’m guessing you like it. We call this place the loft. It’s probably the most interesting place to hang out on campus. But…it’s not what I brought you here to see.”
He released my hand and my palm tingled as it cooled in his absence. I plucked a book from the shelf and flipped through it, reveling in this moment of normalcy. “This library is incredible.”
Trayton was fiddling with something on the wall behind the tapestry. “Just wait. It gets better.”
There was a clicking sound and a section of the wall beside the fireplace swung open. Inside was another set of stairs, this one narrow and made of bare wood.
I dropped the book on the nearest shelf and looked with wonder at Trayton. “A secret room?”
He grinned. “I told you I wanted to show you my favorite place. Go on up.”
Unable to resist the unknown, I stepped into the narrow corridor and slowly made my way up the steps, which creaked as I ascended. Trayton stepped in behind me and closed the hidden door, leaving us cloaked in shadows. My eyes adjusted after a moment and I kept moving upward, not knowing what awaited me above. I could feel Trayton close behind me in the darkness, and I knew without asking that he would catch me if I fell, that he would never lead me anywhere where I would be in danger. But even if danger found us, he’d protect me. I slowed my steps, and in a breathy voice, Trayton said, “Is something wrong?”
Smiling in the darkness, but suddenly hesitant, I said, “Why aren’t we supposed to be alone together, exactly?”
He was quiet for a long time, and as I turned around on my step to face him, I caught his sweet breath on my cheek. His voice was hushed, and our bodies intimately close in the small space. “Tradition, mostly. I…it’s not like I’m going to hurt you or anything, Kaya. I just…wanted to show you that not everything about Shadow Academy is terrible.”
I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t thought it was so apparently obvious that I’d resolved myself to
hating everything about the academy. After a moment, I turned around again and continued up the stairs. At the top of the steps was a small, round room with dust-covered boxes and larger items covered with dusty sheets. I moved forward, wondering why Trayton would bring me here. He stepped to my left and whispered, “Look up, Kaya.”
I raised my eyes to the ceiling and discovered that it was also a glass dome, though much smaller than that of the main library. This one didn’t have any stained glass, but it was perfectly clear. Thousands of stars twinkled above us, and I gasped at the sight of them. Moonlight filtered through the clear panels, lighting the room in a cool bluish tint. I marveled at the perfect view of the star-speckled sky until I heard Trayton moving something behind me. When I turned, he was uncovering what looked like a velvet chaise. He sat down and leaned back, looking up at the stars. After a moment, I sat beside him. “What is all this stuff?”
I opened the satchel he’d brought me and munched on grapes, soft cheese, warm bread, and roasted chicken while he explained. “I think it’s an old storage room. No one but me knows about it, so I really don’t have anyone to ask. Of course, now
know, but I don’t suppose you have any idea what it was used for, hmm?”
I laughed and finished my dinner while watching the stars twinkle. After a while, I could feel Trayton’s eyes on me. I met his gaze. His close proximity both elated
me and made me nervous at the same time. What was I doing in a room alone with a boy that I hardly knew? My dad would have a heart attack if he knew. Clearing my throat, I asked the only thing that I could think to ask him. “Do you want to be Bound to me, Trayton?”
Trayton leaned forward, elbows on his knees. His soft hair fell forward, hiding his face like a curtain. After a long silence, he said, “Did you know the one you were Soulbound to?”
“Don’t change the subject.”
“I’m not.” He lifted his head to look at me. The curtain drew back, revealing his pale, handsome face. “Did you?”
I debated for several seconds what to tell him and finally settled on the absolute truth.
“No. But when I learned he’d died, I felt…broken. I didn’t leave my room. I was just so sad.” I shook my head. “It sounds crazy, but I can’t explain what it felt like to lose him…and I don’t know why I felt that way over a total stranger. I’ve never talked about it until now.”
He watched me for a moment, and I couldn’t tell if he was gauging my sanity level or empathizing with my loss. When he spoke, his voice sounded gruff, as if he were on the verge of tears. “Now imagine having known him, having been there to hold him when he cried, having held him and kissed him and dreamed of a life together. Imagine how much bigger the pain of that loss would have been if you had counted on him
always being there for you, if you had loved him before you lost him.”
A tear escaped his eye and rolled down his cheek, glistening in the light of the moon.
It was all I could do to keep our promise to Maddox, to not reach out and wipe his tear away, to offer him whatever comfort I could. “Oh, Trayton…I’m so sorry.”
“When Samantha—my Healer—died, I sank into a deep depression. After her funeral, I wouldn’t leave my parents’ home to return to the academy, wouldn’t even receive any visitors. I was broken and nobody could fix me. After a month, my father brought me into his office and told me that he had offered the headmaster a substantial amount of money as a show of gratitude for treating our family so well. But I knew what he meant. It was a bribe to move my name to the top of the list of those who were waiting for Healers.” He clenched his jaw. “I hated him. And when I learned your name, I hated you too.”
He took a deep breath and wiped his tears away, something I couldn’t do. “But the hate, the reluctance, the fear went away with time. And now, I’m just hopeful that maybe we’ll find even a small part of the happiness, the closeness that Samantha and I shared.”