Vistaria Has Fallen, Chapter Six

Oops! Should have gone up yesterday — but it was Thanksgiving here in Canada!

If you had a long weekend, too, I hope it was a good’n.

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VISTARIA HAS FALLEN
(Vistaria Has Fallen: Book One)
A Romantic Military Thriller

VISTARIA HAS FALLEN WILL BE RELEASED ON OCTOBER 19, 2017


EXCERPT FROM VISTARIA HAS FALLEN
COPYRIGHT © TRACY COOPER-POSEY 2017
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Chapter Six

“Another party?” Calli said, wrinkling her nose.

“No, this one’s a real party,” Minnie explained, sliding onto the tabletop next to Calli’s coffee and breakfast plate. “Not like that stuffy thing for the General. Duardo says proper Vistarian parties are nothing like American parties—”

“How would he know what an American party is like?”

“They have TV here.” Minnie rolled her eyes. “Half the shows they get here are American. Anyway, it’s today. Sunday.”

“Tonight?”

“No, today. Soon.”

“Now?” Calli rubbed her temple. “Hell, they’ve just finished with Fiesta. Isn’t that enough?”

“Are you always this grumpy on Sundays?” Minnie asked, crossing her arms and tilting her head to one side.

“When I’m short on sleep I am,” Calli muttered.

“You slept in late yesterday and you came home disgustingly early on Friday night. Last night you went to bed early again. It’s now nearly nine. That’s gotta be enough sleep for anyone.”

“It would, if I actually slept.” She thought again of the white lily in the vase on her bedside table. She hadn’t been able to throw it away, even though its presence made her uneasy. That discomfort had robbed her of sleep last night. When she did doze, lurid dreams of men stealing into the house woke her.

“If you’re not sleeping, don’t bother trying. Come to the party instead.”

Calli wrinkled her nose again. “I haven’t got the energy,” she confessed. “All that dressing up—”

“You can wear jeans,” Minnie said. “Come on, Calli. Please.”

“Why do I have to go?”

“Because I won’t go without you and I want to see Duardo. He’s going back home tonight.”

“He doesn’t live in the city?”

“God, no. He lives up in Pascuallita. That’s where he’s posted, at the base there.”

All the way from Pascuallita… She recalled Nick’s words when he had been shaking Duardo’s hand.

“Okay,” Calli said, understanding.

“Cool. They’re picking us up at ten,” Minnie said, sliding off the table and heading for her room. “I’m going to get dressed.”

“No, wait—” Calli began.

The bedroom door had already closed.

With a sigh, she got up from the table and went to change.

* * * * *

Forty-eight minutes later, they heard a horn sound outside the house. Minnie and Calli went outside, to find Duardo standing on the back of a beat-up, rusty and faded truck with an enormous engine cowling.

“Hell, it looks like Ford’s first model,” Calli muttered.

“Good morning, ladies!” Duardo waved them over. He wore jeans and a white shirt, which contrasted well with his tanned skin.

Minnie ran over to the back of the truck. Calli followed. The high walls of timber planking provided back support for seven more people sitting on the floor of the truck. Calli recognized one of the women, Elvira, from the General’s party. Elvira looked much younger now in her pretty printed floral skirt and white cotton sweater, with her hair down. Calli nodded to her. “Hola,” she murmured. She knew all but two of the soldiers, too.

Duardo bent and held out his hand. “Put your foot there and I will lift you up,” he told Minnie, pointing to the edge of the platform.

Minnie looked down at her tight, mid-thigh length denim skirt. “I’m not hitching my leg up there.” She shook her head.

The others in the truck laughed. Her expression was clear enough even if they didn’t follow the English.

Duardo grinned. “No problem.” He turned and spoke quickly. Two more men got to their feet and moved to the edge of the truck, while Duardo jumped to the ground. He grasped Minnie’s waist in both hands. “Lift your arms,” he instructed.

She lifted her arms. The men took an arm each. Then, with no visible effort, Duardo lifted her up into the air, high enough for her to take a decorous step up onto the platform.

Duardo motioned Calli toward him.

“No, thank you,” she said. “I can manage this.” She stepped up to the truck bed and waved the two men away. They moved back, grinning. She could sense Duardo hovering behind her. Long legs and stretch jeans gave her an advantage, though. She tucked her knee to her chest and planted her sandaled foot on the wooden flooring. It wasn’t even much of a stretch, after years of flexibility training for karate. Pausing for a moment to balance herself with a hand on either side, she flexed her leg, pouring power into it. Straightening the leg, she raised herself up onto the floor. She ended up standing on the edge.

Duardo clapped. The men gave little whistles of appreciation, laughing and making comments. “Bravo!” she heard. These men, all soldiers, would understand the physical agility and strength she had just displayed. Smiling, she gave a little curtsey and sat in the vacant space they made for her, between Minnie and a man in a black AC/DC tee-shirt. He smiled and gave her a thumbs up. She smiled back.

Duardo settled down beside Minnie at the edge of the flat bed. They sat on the driver’s side, so he leaned around the end and patted the side of the truck. “Vayamos!”

The truck jerked into gear and with a belching roar, chuffed up the road.

Duardo leaned around Minnie and pointed to the man on Calli’s left. “This is Pietro,” he said.

,” Pietro agreed with a grin.

“Hi Pietro.”

Duardo indicated the others in the truck. They all waved or said hello in English or Spanish, including Elvira, who attempted a shaky, thick ‘how are you?’. In civilian clothes, without rank or title, they seemed to be young, amiable people.

They made their way out of the city, climbing up and down foothills. The truck turned onto a poorly maintained ribbon of tarmac with thick vegetation creeping close to the verge. Traffic kept the road clear of growth, while trees leaned in overhead, struggling for light at the edges of the canopy. The road became a shadowed, narrow tunnel, lit by patches of dazzling sunlight. Above the canopy, Calli glimpsed pale blue, cloudless sky.

The people in the back paid no attention to their surroundings. They laughed and chatted and Calli relaxed. The roar of the engine and the vibrations had a soothing effect. She grew sleepy.

Pietro gave her arm a gentle nudge. She opened her eyes. He offered an open bottle of Mezcal.

“It’s watered down with lime juice and mineral water,” Minnie said. “Very nice.”

“It’s too hot. You need water,” Duardo explained. “Drink.”

She took a sip and enjoyed the tang of the juice. It had been well-watered and seemed refreshing. The Mezcal merely added flavor. She took a longer drink and gave the bottle back.

The man with the incongruous name of Harry stood up and leaned over the boards at the side of the truck, calling down into the cab. Then he reached over and lifted a guitar. He sat and settled it against his thigh and strummed some fast chords. This appeared to please everyone. The energy picked up. Harry laughed and played intricate Latin-style music with a compulsive beat. The others picked up the beat, hands on thighs, feet tapping, clapping. There didn’t appear to be any lyrics, although Calli heard Pietro next to her humming and slapping his thigh. After a while the music changed into a different melody, while the beat stayed the same. Harry was doodling, trying out different themes before moving onto something new.

When Harry tired of it, another man picked up the guitar and a new lilt emerged.

Calli took sips from the Mezcal bottle when offered. Time passed.

The truck was climbing up sheer mountainside, the road switching back on itself over and over. The pavement here, particularly the verges, was well maintained, consisting of poured concrete and iron reinforcements. It seemed Vistaria had wisely chosen its priorities for road maintenance.

They travelled in full sunshine now. At this elevation, the sun beat down, direct and bright. Calli fished her sunglasses out of her bag and put them on. As they turned another hairpin bend, she got a breath-catching view of the countryside. They’d climbed a thousand feet. The Pacific sparkled deep blue to the east. In between lay a carpet of green, rimmed by white beach. To the north lay Lozano Colinas, Las Colinas, thick with buildings and roads, lapping up against the mountain chain that ran north and south along the spine of the main island. They climbed that same chain now. The altitude made the engine of the elderly truck groan and work.

“This truck…this road…many. Many,” Pietro said, with a big smile, lifting his voice above the music. He moved his hand in a flat sideways motion. “No worry.”

Calli gave him a small answering smile. Had her concern been so apparent?

Pietro’s confidence seemed well placed. Despite alarming noises and the driver dropping into such a low gear that Calli could have walked and made better time, the truck kept running. As the road flattened out and headed into a deep crevasse of the mountains, the truck picked up speed.

The valley they were in tucked into a fold of the mountains, thick with trees. Over two dozen houses hugged the steep valley walls, dotted on either side of the road. Some of them were large, expensive-looking establishments. Others were little more than two-room cottages with the traditional Vistarian gate and courtyard tacked onto the front.

“What is this place?” Calli asked Duardo.

“Dominio de Leo.” He pointed back toward the Pacific, hidden by the sheer mountain beside them. “The army base is down there. Many senior officers up here. It is very…rich.”

“Expensive,” Calli said.

“Yes, so.”

“Some houses don’t look that expensive.”

“They were here before. Before the army base and the officers came to the valley.”

“Dominio de Leo,” Calli pronounced experimentally.

No,” Harry said from his corner. “El dominio de Leo de príncipe is right name. But not used.”

El dominio de Leo de…” Calli shook her head. “What does it mean?”

Duardo frowned, struggling to translate the name.

“It means the domain of Prince Leo,” Minnie said. “Some Spanish prince who took a fancy to the place. It’s pretty nice.”

“Yes,” Duardo said, nodding. “Prince Leopold. He sailed here, long ago. Built a big house.” He pointed further into the valley. “Gone now. It was over there, they say.”

The truck lurched to the left as it turned into a rutted, bumpy side road and came to a halt with a squeal of brakes. The engine quit with a heavy sigh of relief.

The silence that fell seemed almost profound.

Everyone got to their feet, stretching, wriggling, rubbing their legs and butts. The wooden floor had been unforgiving.

Hola!” The shout came from the other side of the boards Calli leaned against.

She got to her feet. The truck stood beside a modest house. It was more extensive than the two-room cottages she had seen, yet not palatial. It was a bungalow like most houses here, with adobe walls. An elegant arch lifted over the gate into the front courtyard. People emerged from the gate, shouting greetings at the new arrivals, including a heavily pregnant woman, who moved slowly and wore a large smile. They waved, calling to each other as they spilled out of the truck and moved toward the house.

Calli looked around from her vantage point on the back of the truck. The trees crowded close here. The ground dipped from the nose of the truck forward. The truck stood at the end of a narrow, rutted path used as a driveway. In another driveway on the far side of the house, three sedans were parked behind the tail end of a fourth just visible behind the corner of the house.

“Come.”

Calli turned around. Pietro stood at the end of the truck. With a smile he beckoned her toward him. “You come. We eat, no?”

“Sure,” she agreed and moved to the edge of the truck. He stepped back and let her jump down by herself, then motioned that she should precede him toward the house.

Everyone else had gone inside. The noise level spiraled, even out here. The party had begun.

The front courtyard was paved in terracotta tiles. The front door, a massive wooden thing decorated with metal studs and a wrought iron grill, stood open, revealing a passage that ran through the middle of the house. Calli looked up as they moved into the passage and saw a roof of exposed tiles resting on timber framing. On either side of her were rooms with the fourth wall that would have lined the passage not there. It made a charming and intriguing open style of house.

At the end of the passage, more daylight beckoned. A kitchen area on the right gave her a startling glimpse of a modern stainless steel stove top and range hood, a wide wall-oven and a double-doored fridge behind an island counter. On the counter sat a wooden chopping board, surrounded by tantalizing fresh produce. When Calli stepped into the kitchen area, she stopped to draw a second surprised breath.

There was another courtyard on this side of the house, with knee-high walls surrounding it, instead of roof-height walls. They had been built low to take advantage of the view, which showed the trees carpeting the valley. The land dropped nearly the full thousand feet to sea level before climbing up again to the other side. The courtyard extended twenty feet from house to wall and twice that from wall to wall, running the width of the house. Deep reddish-brown colored terracotta tiles paved the whole area. Colored and patterned tiles in deep blues, olive greens and yellows were embedded in odd places across the paving.

Trees that had been trimmed and trained to provide shade leaned over the walls. One of them stood at the far corner of the courtyard, its gnarled trunk made up of many thick cables. The trunk was over fifteen feet thick. The base of the tree flared even wider. The thick strands spread, burrowing into the earth. It looked like it had been there forever.

The wall ran right up to the trunk, incorporating the tree into the walls. Calli had seen many trees like this in the city. Uncle Josh had called them Banyan trees. They had been imported to the island from African territories by the Spanish. Only, none of them had been this big or this old.

While Calli admired the view, three men helped the pregnant woman sink into an armchair sitting in the kitchen corner of the courtyard. Chairs and stools surrounded three low tables, grouped across the courtyard. Everyone settled into them, chatting like long-lost friends. Everyone knew each other.

Movement to her right made her turn and check over her shoulder. Three men stood in the kitchen, one of them at the island, chopping a handful of herbs, while another one dug through the interior of the refrigerator. The third set out glasses.

The front wall of the kitchen was made of three big glass panels. Two of them were pushed along tracks to slide behind the third, leaving the kitchen open to the courtyard.

Calli checked over her left shoulder. The wall there was the same, pushed back to reveal an indoor lounge area, furnished with overstuffed sofas and spice-colored cushions.

People put plates and bowls of food on the tables. Colorful salsas, rolled tortillas. There were more dishes she could not name. They made her mouth water just looking at them, with their sprinkling of fresh herbs and garnishes of hibiscus and cucumbers.

Minnie came over to her, carrying two glasses. “It’s a punch. Alcoholic,” she told Calli, offering her one.

Calli shrugged and sipped. The sweet-and-sour tang held a pleasant, rum-like flavor. “Strong.”

“It’s good,” Minnie declared. “Come and sit with us.” She led Calli over to the table closest to the edge of the courtyard. Beyond the knee-high wall, the ground plunged.

Elvira sat at the table and Pietro had just set down another steaming dish.

“Eat,” Elvira said, handing Calli a large, bright napkin as she sat.

Duardo brought the short man who had been standing at the chopping block over to their table. “Calli, Minnie, this is Hernandez Mendosa, whose house this is. Hernandez is marshal at Lozano base.”

Hernandez bowed to them, the hand gripping a tea towel held to his chest. “I welcome you to my home,” he said. “I regret, my wife Menaka, she cannot stand with me. She is being comfortable.” He waved to the armchair in the corner by the kitchen window, where Menaka sat rubbing her swollen stomach. “She is very tired.”

“I’m sure,” Minnie agreed. “It’s nice to meet you, Hernandez. You have a lovely home and thank you for welcoming us into it. We appreciate your hospitality.”

“Thank you,” he said and bowed again. “Will you excuse me, please? I must go back. These soldiers…they eat much.”

Pietro chuckled and Hernandez waved a hand at him before heading back to his kitchen. Duardo dropped into a chair and reached for a plate.

“Is everyone here a soldier?” Calli asked, looking around.

“Yes, all,” Pietro agreed. He ate busily. Elvira had risen from her chair and wandered over to the other table to select food from dishes there, while talking to the people around that table.

A rotund man came to their table and selected a tortillas.

“And this is Pav,” Duardo said.

The man laughed and nodded at them.

“‘Pavarotti,’” Pietro explained and patted the man’s distended stomach.

“Right.”

Pav moved away and Calli leaned forward to examine the dishes. Duardo and Pietro described each one, the spiciness and the ingredients. Elvira came back to the table and added her own knowledge about the preparation of the dishes.

Pietro refilled their glasses of punch.

Calli ate and drank and relaxed, surrounded by people that enjoyed life and welcomed her. They were a lively group. As the pace of eating slowed, guitars were picked up. At first the music was slow and coaxing. Soon, though, a man stood with a shout and stamped his feet, throwing his hands up in the air. It was a declaration. An entrance.

The guitar players picked up the pace. The dancer moved out onto the clear space at the end of the courtyard, tapping his way with expert steps, while the others cheered him on with claps and whistles.

Elvira ran over to him, lifted her skirt to reveal her knees and tapped out intricate steps that sent up a cheer of encouragement.

“Elvira!” someone called. Two small brown objects flew through the air. She caught them and paused to work at them. Then she lifted her hand with a graceful flick. The castanets rattled out a tattoo. She stamped her feet in time.

Two more got to their feet, clapping along with the guitars. Another woman, who had not been on the truck, joined Elvira. Her hands lifted in the same graceful motions as she danced different steps.

“They seem to just do their own thing,” Minnie murmured.

“Whatever the music tells them to do,” Calli said. “They look great.” She heard, with wry resignation, the touch of envy in her tone. That seductive gracefulness had always been beyond her capabilities.

“You can do that,” Pietro told Calli.

She laughed. “Not me.”

“Yes, most certainly,” Duardo added. He picked up Minnie’s hand. “You, too. Come.”

“Me?” Minnie asked.

He nodded.

Minnie let Duardo lead her to the other dancers. He placed her next to Elvira. Elvira picked up her skirt again and tapped out a simple, half-speed set of steps and Minnie followed. After three repetitions, she nailed it with a big smile and a laugh. Then Elvira repeated the step at the proper speed, rapping it out with a Spanish-looking flourish, the castanets adding their compulsive rattle. Then she paused and waited for Minnie to repeat it.

Minnie repeated the pattern, with almost the same flourish and Calli laughed aloud with sheer joy.

Elvira repeated the pattern. Minnie immediately followed with her own repetition. Then they both danced out the pattern, and kept going. Duardo clapped the rhythm, encouraging them. Elvira showed Minnie how to turn and move while keeping the beat and Minnie followed, her hips swaying with the same elegant motion as Elvira. Hesitantly, she added arm movements.

Calli smiled, exuberance bubbling through her veins. Apart from the incongruous denim skirt and short hair, Minnie looked like any of the women dancing there—flirtatious, seductive. Duardo moved around her with the strutty motion the men made as they preened beside the woman. They sent smoldering glances at the women over their shoulders, while their hips echoed the movements the women made. It was as sexy a dance as any tango Calli had ever seen and she tapped her own feet, her hips twitching in time.

“Now you will know how,” Pietro said and picked up her hand. “You understand.”

Calli followed him to the group of dancers and Elvira flashed her a wide smile when she saw her. She showed Calli the step and Calli surprised herself when she executed it perfectly. It made sense to her, the beat and the motion falling into place along with the music. Only, the flat, rubber-soled sandals she wore wouldn’t move easily on the tiles.

Elvira frowned and, over the music, called out something to Menaka, who sat in her armchair clapping as enthusiastically as anyone watching the dancers.

Menaka nodded and called back. Elvira slipped between the bordering ring of spectators and disappeared inside the house. In a moment, she returned with a pair of black heeled shoes in her hand, each with a fine strap over the instep. Dancing shoes.

She thrust them at Calli. “Easier for—” and she stamped out a step or two, the heels of her own shoes rapping on the tiles.

Calli slipped out of her sandals and put them on. They fit, which surprised her, for her feet were in proportion with her height and Vistarian women seemed to be generally petite. She stood up and gave an experimental stamp and immediately sensed the improvement. Her blood beating a tattoo in time with the guitars and the clapping, she moved to stand between Elvira and Minnie and picked up the pattern they followed. Excitement flooded her as the flow of the dance became clear. She relaxed her concentration, letting her instinct guide her instead. The pattern came easily, naturally. Did she have a latent talent for this? Or had she simply been immersed in this culture for long enough to absorb the attitude, the…sexiness?

Wholesome, exhilarating energy flared as she turned and tapped in time to the music. Her hands came up into the air of their own accord, weaving patterns that felt natural, inevitable. The clapping and shouting of the onlookers encouraged her to continue, to fling her head back and fall into the spell of seduction woven by the music and movement. Her hair tickled the back of her hips where the skin showed between her jeans and tee-shirt and she laughed aloud for sheer joy once again. Calli hadn’t been this alive in years—with one recent exception.

She looked over and saw Duardo move behind Minnie and shadow her movements. It completed the pattern in her mind. Such a seductive dance must have an audience, an intended target. It would be natural for the target to respond as Duardo responded, to be beckoned. He reached out to rest his hands on Minnie’s hips, then they moved in unison.

A hand came down on her own hip and Calli looked behind her. Pietro winked at her. “Don’t worry,” he told her. “Just friends.”

She understood and fell back into the beat. Pietro followed her, his hands on her hips, lifting as he turned her, leading as they moved around the floor. Pietro was a good dancer and Calli learned more as she followed his lead.

The music seemed to grow more frantic, the beat faster. She whirled, caught up in the rhythm. Abruptly it peaked and with a final staccato beat of heels, they came to a halt, the music at an end.

For a tiny second silence held, while Calli drew an unsteady breath, her blood pounding in her ears. Then everyone clapped and laughed, applauding themselves. The dancers broke up, cups were refilled.

Acute disappointment circled through her. She didn’t want the dancing to end.

“Later, okay?” Pietro said, plucking at his AC/DC tee-shirt. “Time for rest.”

“Sure,” she said, forcing a smile.

Duardo, his hand still resting on Minnie’s hip, passed them and said in a low voice intended only for Pietro, “Rojo.” He nodded toward the house.

Calli’s chest locked with a sudden, overwhelming mix of dread, hope and the return of the seductive excitement of the dancing, only this time more primordial, more basic. It was pure wanting, bereft of any flirtation.

She turned toward the house, holding her breath. Was he…?

Nicolás Escobedo sat on one of the straight-backed chairs, a boot resting on the seat of another, his chair pushed back and balanced. Black jeans, a dark olive green shirt with the soft glow that spoke of silk. Silk, her mind whispered.

Two men approached him. Nick spoke a few words. An exchange of greetings. Acknowledgments. They made no fuss over him, no fanfare. She understood that Nick was not here as an Escobedo. Duardo had named him correctly. He was here as the quiet man who moved amongst them, directing, managing, putting things to right.

A few words for each of them and they moved on, leaving him to his privacy. Alone, he settled back in his chair and turned back to look at her, his gaze direct, uncompromising. Had he watched her dance?

Her heart gave a little thrill of a beat at the idea. The she remembered the lily.

She walked over to stand in front of him and pushed her thumbs into her pockets, her hands curling into fists. “You were invited to this party too?” she asked.

“I’m invited everywhere.”

“You don’t go everywhere, though.”

“I go where I’m needed.”

“I don’t think you’re needed here.”

“Are you sure?” he asked.

Calli’s spine, her whole body, rippled. That response and the aching, throbbing need pouring through her also tripped off her anger. She didn’t like how her body longed for his touch when her mind had decided differently.

“Nick, stop playing with me. I don’t need this.”

He glanced around, a casual look. Calli knew he checked for eavesdroppers. Witnesses. Everyone appeared busy doing something else—talking and drinking. Eating. A little pocket of space separated Calli and Nick from them.

“Sit down,” he told her.

“No.”

“Sit down,” he repeated. “This is one of the few places where you and I can talk in comparative security and by God, we will talk.” He pushed a hand through his hair. “We must talk.” His tone was insistent.

She sank onto the chair next to the one his boot pushed against, facing him. As she sat, Minnie came over and handed her a glass of punch and moved away again. She seemed to be part of the unspoken conspiracy to give them with total privacy right in the middle of a rowdy party.

“We already talked, I thought,” Calli said, with a sigh. “You said nothing could ever come of this. I believed you.”

He straightened up his chair, lifting his foot away from the other and leaned toward her. “I meant what I said.”

“Then why the lily, Nick? I know you put it there.”

He studied her face, as if he absorbed the details, memorizing them. “Call it a supreme moment of self-torture,” he said at last. “A moment of weakness.”

“Do you know how insecure I feel knowing that despite locked doors you can invade my room while I sleep? I can’t fight you off when I’m sleeping.”

He nodded a little. “It won’t happen again. Not unless you invite me.”

“I will never invite you.”

“It’s better that way,” he agreed. He reached out toward her face and tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear. His warmth radiated against her cheek. Her heart jumped.

“Don’t,” she said sharply.

“I said you had an uncrushable spirit. I was right.” He withdrew his hand and clasped it with the other, the double fists hanging between his knees. “I wanted to apologize. For the lily, for Friday night. You said I played with you and I’m sure it feels that way. It was simply…weakness. I have faced down rabid generals and armed guerillas in my time. You, though are something I’ve never had to battle. I faltered. It won’t happen again.”

In her gut, she knew he spoke the truth. After this day, he would go away and leave her alone. She would never feel the touch of his chest beneath silk, or his hand cupping her hip.

Calli shivered. He sat inches away from her. She could reach out and touch him, only he would not allow it. The discipline, the iron will, had realigned themselves. He would resist his own weakness and fend off hers.

For the sake of Vistaria.

“Okay,” she said with a sigh. “Alright.” Abruptly, the enormous, bone-deep, energy sapping tiredness returned. She managed to smile but it came out crooked. “I believe you.”

Something must have shown in her face. He shook his head. “I don’t know who Robert is, but right now I’d like to kill him. It is he who has planted the shadow of doubt in you that makes you think you’re not whole and complete, that you aren’t enough.”

She jumped. “How do you know about Robert?”

“You mentioned him once. You said you haven’t felt anything since Robert, then you stopped yourself from saying more.” He leaned a little closer. “Only, I saw you dance just then. You were whole, vibrant and alive. Yes?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“That is something Vistaria has done for you, I think.”

“Not Vistaria,” she said.

Then the world grew very bright and very hot. Something shoved her from the left. It slammed into her head. She felt no pain. She felt nothing.

Then, even her sight faded.


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