Illuminated, page 8
Zahrias’ mouth thinned. Kamal sometimes wondered about the other djinn, why he had agreed to lead this community when he had taken no Chosen of his own. It did not seem as if all his beliefs aligned with those he had volunteered to rule. But those were questions that must wait until another day. Kamal had quite enough on his own mind right now. He had come to Taos, to the house that had been given to him — and which he had hoped he would share with Sarah — but had been there no more than a half hour before the summons to this interview had arrived.
Little flickers of worried flame appeared around Zahrias’ head, indicating that the fire elemental was displeased with Kamal’s response. “You say that she must surely be overlooked, and yet her safety cannot be guaranteed. Not completely. You must return and bring her here.”
“She is very angry with me.”
“With good reason. I had a feeling this gambit of yours would fail miserably. But if you want her — ”
“I do,” Kamal broke in. Never mind that if glances were blades, those looks Sarah had shot in his direction would have pierced him multiple times. In that moment as the bear approached her, he had realized how terrible it would be to lose her now, when he was so close to making her his forever. Truly, he could not have borne it. “Now more than ever, I think.”
“Then you must go to her. Do whatever you have to in order to convince her that you are sorry, that this ‘disguise’ of yours was not intended to hurt her.”
“Yes, Zahrias.” As he spoke, an idea began to form in Kamal’s mind. Yes, Sarah was angry — and hurt, and betrayed — and yet he thought he might have a way of reaching out to her, of proving to her that he truly did care, and wanted nothing more than to make her happy.
But to make it really work, he would have to wait until dark….
The solar panels, the hookup to the water pump — it had also been a lie. The first sign that something was wrong was when Sarah went to the bathroom to splash some water on her face. She hoped that doing so would help her come back to herself, allow her to focus on what she should do next.
Only, when she turned the handle, nothing came out of the tap. Not in her bathroom, not in the kitchen, not in the public restroom next to the gift shop. Frowning, she’d retrieved her spare boots, since the ones she’d worn that morning were still damp, then went out to check on the solar panels. Maybe they’d gotten knocked down in the storm, or the connections had somehow pulled loose.
Everything appeared intact at first glance — until she moved closer, really looked at the wires. They’d been attached to the solar panels with black electrical tape, but they weren’t attached to any inputs or leads, as far as she could tell. The whole setup looked like it had been patched together to fool the casual observer.
The casual observer being her, of course. What other powers had he been hiding?
Anger lanced through her, and she stomped back into the hotel, not even caring about the mud she tracked in. By that point, the sun was high enough in the sky that it had begun to melt the snow, and large patches of soggy earth had appeared. In a way, that was good. It meant she’d find it easier to get around.
Because she didn’t want Cameron — or whatever his real name was — coming back to Cloudcroft to plead with her. The storm had been a wakeup call. She needed to get out of here. Maybe there weren’t any people left down the hill…but maybe there were. If she didn’t at least try to find out, she knew the question would haunt her forever. Besides, if she busied herself with getting away from this place, she wouldn’t have the time to wonder what the djinn had really wanted from her.
Her anger allowed her to ignore her scruples about taking someone else’s vehicle, even if the owner of said vehicle had now been dead for more than two months. Oscar Martinez had owned one of the nicest trucks in town, a big Dodge Ram that wasn’t even a year old. Four-wheel drive, skid plates to protect the undercarriage, the works. Even if some rocks had spilled across the highway, which they had a tendency to do in bad weather, she figured that truck could get around them. Or over them, as the case may be.
She packed her clothes, packed all the food and supplies she thought she’d need, much of which she was able to procure from the camping store in town. This felt even more like stealing than taking the truck, but again, Eric, the store’s owner, wasn’t going to need any of this stuff. Ditto for his former customers. By the time she was done, dusk had crept over Cloudcroft. Too late to start down the hill, even in as capable a vehicle as this one. She’d have to park it in the shed at the hotel, and then head out in the morning. Well, one more night here wouldn’t kill her. She could say goodbye to the place, make her farewells to Rebecca the ghost — if she even existed — and then start fresh as soon as the sun was up.
No worries about bears, either; she had both her pistol and her rifle on the passenger seat beside her. A precaution she hadn’t needed, apparently, since she hadn’t seen anything bigger than a raven since she set out on this little expedition. If that bear had survived Cameron’s attack, then it seemed to have fled to the hills.
Sarah wound up the road that led to the Lodge, high beams on to show her the way. At least the snow hadn’t returned. The sky overhead was clear, the first stars showing in the heavens already startlingly bright.
Then she came around the bend that opened on the hotel’s driveway, and stomped on the brakes.
White fairy lights glittered in the trees. More white lights framed every window, and outlined the eaves. Far above, on top of the cupola where she used to keep vain watch, hoping against hope that someone might finally appear and tell her she wasn’t alone in the world, glittered a bright five-pointed star.
What in the world…?
Fingers clenched on the steering wheel, she started moving slowly toward the building. As she drew closer, she saw someone standing on the front steps.
No, not just someone. Cameron.
He looked very different. Gone were the jeans and the hoodie and the T-shirt. Now he wore a long, open robe made of what looked like silk, and full pantaloons and boots. A thick silver bracelet gleamed on each wrist.
Djinn clothes? It sure looked that way.
Sarah put the truck in park and killed the engine. Heart beating with irrational strength in her chest, she got out of the cab and closed the door behind her. A step toward the djinn, then another. She stopped when she was a yard or so away, then glanced past him to the hotel, now glittering in holiday splendor.
“Your work?” she asked, since she didn’t know what else to say.
“Yes,” he replied. An evening wind caught at the hem of his robe, causing the silk to billow and flutter. With the sun down, it was now bitterly cold, but he didn’t seem to notice, even with that distractingly bare chest and stomach. “I need to talk to you.”
“What if I don’t want to talk to you?”
The word was said simply, but even in her anger, she could hear the need, the pleading behind it. Anyway, he was blocking the door. She wasn’t sure what he would do if she tried to get around him, but she also didn’t think she really wanted to find out. Better to let him say his piece and then go. If he really wanted to overpower her, there wasn’t much she could do to stop him.
“Fine,” she said grudgingly. “Don’t think you’re going to change my mind, though.”
He inclined his head. “I only want to talk.”
She shrugged, hoping the apparent nonchalance of the gesture would hide the tension roiling within her. “All right. Come inside.”
The door was still locked, just as she’d left it. She unclipped the carabiner with its set of hotel keys from her belt and inserted the one that opened the deadbolt on the front door. It was only as the door began to swing inward that she realized it had been adorned with a wreath, one with a big red bow on it.
The second thing she noticed was that the interior of the hotel was not dark, as she’d been expecting, but lit by the sconces on the walls a
She turned back toward Cameron, who had closed the door behind him and stood there with a watchful expression on his face, as though observing her to see how she would react to the sudden appearance of all this Christmas cheer. “You did this?”
“All of it? Just while I was gone?”
“Yes. It was really not all that much work.”
For a djinn, maybe. Sarah remembered how it had taken five people working three days straight to decorate the Lodge last holiday season. What, did he just have to snap his fingers to make all this appear?
“It looks beautiful,” she allowed, and something in his posture relaxed slightly.
“I am glad you like it. Come, you must be hungry. Let us sit down and talk.”
And get me tipsy so I’m all suggestible and forgiving, she thought. Sorry, not happening. Even so, she knew she wanted to hear what he had to say, wanted to hear his explanations. Maybe then she’d have some answers to the questions that had been plaguing her all day.
“All right,” she said.
They both seated themselves on the couches. Sarah was relieved to see that the djinn didn’t try to sit next to her, and instead took the sofa on the other side of the coffee table. He poured some wine into a pair of glasses, then reached across the table to hand one to her.
“Thank you for letting me speak to you.”
“You’re not going to change my mind.”
He looked so self-assured. And, she was forced to admit to herself, pretty damn spectacular. Something about his dark, exotic looks was only enhanced by that getup he had on. Looking at him now, she wondered how she could have ever thought he was just a regular guy.
“What’s your name?” she asked abruptly. “Your real name, I mean. Not the one you handed me.”
“I am Kamal,” he replied. “Kamal al-Sayid.”
“So…you’re from Saudi Arabia or something?”
“No. Djinn names sound like the given names from that part of the world, but I assure you, my people lived there long before there was a Saudi Arabia, or any of the other nations in that region.”
There really wasn’t anything reassuring about any of this, but still, Sarah was oddly relieved to hear his real name. Kamal. It suited him. “So what’s a djinn doing hanging around Cloudcroft, New Mexico?”
“To be with you, of course.”
“Me?” She raised an eyebrow. “Am I supposed to be flattered that a supernatural being wanted to get in my pants?”
He didn’t look offended by the remark. Instead, he smiled slightly, as though remembering exactly what it had been like to get in those pants. “You misunderstand. I chose you to be my partner.”
“Chose me? Why? Did you get tired of djinn women or something?” If there even are djinn women, she added mentally. I have no idea how any of this is supposed to work.
“No. That is, whether or not I am weary of them has nothing to do with why I chose you. I knew that you would be one of those who would survive the Dying, and I also knew that I wanted you to be the one who would come to share my life.”
Survive the Dying…. Her eyes narrowed. “You mean you knew this was going to happen? The end of the world?”
“The end of your world,” he corrected her, although his tone was kind, and the dark eyes that held hers concerned, almost gentle. “The djinn created the Heat so they might take back this world. Because they created the disease, they also knew who would survive.”
Oh, God. Sarah didn’t even realize she’d gotten to her feet until she found herself standing, her entire body taut with fury. “You did this? You killed everyone?”
“No, I did not. There is a small group of us who disagreed, who thought the creation of the Heat was an abomination. There weren’t enough of us to stop it, unfortunately. All we could do was get the assurance that the mortals we selected as our partners would be safe. This is why I chose you, Sarah. I had to make sure no harm would ever come to you.”
The room seemed to be spinning around her, the lights from the Christmas tree swirling like some kind of mad, out-of-control carousel. She began to lift a hand to her forehead, hoping the pressure might help to stop this sudden rush of vertigo. At once Kamal was there beside her. His hands reached for hers, holding them tight, giving her a center to focus on.
No…she couldn’t let him touch her. He was evil. Or…was he? He’d said that he wanted to save her, protect her.
She didn’t understand any of this.
“I know it is a great deal to take in,” he murmured, still grasping her fingers. “And you have every right to be angry. I am angry, too, at what my people did. Please know that not all of us are like that. Truly, we are not.”
She blinked and made herself look up at him. His dark eyes were earnest, beseeching her to understand, to believe him. How could she, though? He’d already lied to her.
“Why didn’t you tell me from the beginning?” she asked at last, her voice barely for than a scratchy whisper. “What was the point of all those lies?”
“Ah, Sarah.” He pulled her to him, and for some reason, she didn’t resist. Call her crazy, but it felt good to have those strong arms go around her and hold her close, almost as though she was supposed to be there next to him. “That was my own foolishness. I had chosen you, but I wished to know you better. I wanted you to treat me as one of your own kind, rather than a djinn. I thought…I thought if you could love Cameron, who was no one terribly special, then you would also love Kamal, would realize we were one and the same, at least at heart. I know now that I made a terrible mistake. It was wrong of me to mislead you. All I can do now is ask your forgiveness.”
How could she forgive him? He’d lied repeatedly…and even though he claimed to be innocent, he’d just admitted how his people had created the plague that destroyed the world, the terrible disease that killed her father and everyone else she knew.
“You don’t deserve it,” she whispered.
His jaw tightened, but to her surprise, he only nodded. “You are right. I don’t deserve for you to forgive me. I can only hope that you are kind enough, gracious enough…noble enough…to give me that which I don’t deserve.”
Kind…gracious…noble…was she worthy of any of those adjectives? She didn’t know. No one had ever called her any of those things before, just as no one had ever spoken to her like this before. So earnest, so troubled, so passionate.
When she looked deep within, she understood then that she couldn’t hate Kamal. He had admitted to his mistake. She’d known people who would never, ever admit that they’d screwed up. Even her own father would never acknowledge that it might have been better for both of them if they’d left Cloudcroft, rather than stay here and hang on to memories of someone who’d abandoned them years earlier.
But Kamal had made that admission. He’d stood there and confessed to his wrongdoing. That had to count for something, didn’t it?
As for the rest…she didn’t even know what to think about that. Surely he couldn’t agree with what the other djinn had done, or he wouldn’t be here with her now. He would have sought her death from the very moment he laid eyes on her.
“How many djinn think like you?” she asked at last.
He let out a breath, as if relieved that she had set aside her anger enough to ask the question. “We are called the One Thousand, because that is our number. There are some fifty of us in Taos right now, with our human partners.”
A thousand djinn, out of how many? Did it matter, though? What mattered was at least the
There were so many other things she wanted to know, but she supposed she would come to learn more in the days and weeks and months ahead. More about who these djinn really were, what their powers might be. She’d caught a glimpse of those powers in Kamal, in the way he’d protected her from the bear, and how he’d been able to give her hot running water here at the hotel. Well, that was something. Sarah had a feeling she wouldn’t be lacking for creature comforts in her new home.
“And is that where you want to take me? Up to Taos?”
“Yes.” His arms tightened around her, and she felt him brush a kiss against the top of her head. “It is the only place I can take you. That is part of the agreement — that we of the One Thousand live in our own communities with our Chosen, away from the rest of the djinn.”
Taos. She’d never been there. A resort town to the north, in a high valley ringed with mountains. It would be a new adventure. One of many, she supposed.
Well, she had been trying to get out of Cloudcroft….
Very gently, she pressed her lips to the bare skin of his chest, then pulled away. She knew she’d already made her decision. “All right. That is, I think I forgive you. Maybe I’m crazy, but — ”
She never got the chance to finish, for Kamal bent to kiss her, his mouth warm, insistent. A flush of desire passed over her, shocking, sudden. Obviously, her body was ready to forgive him, too.
When the kiss ended, she caught the mischievous flash of Kamal’s eyes and glanced upward. Hanging from the center of the chandelier was a large sprig of mistletoe, bound with red ribbon.
“You do think of everything, don’t you?”
“I try,” he replied. “And we shall still have our Christmas here, before I take you away to Taos. Would you like that?”
She nodded. “I would. I think it would help — having a chance to really say goodbye to everything.”
by Christine Pope / Romance / Science Fiction & Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes