"Becoming frustrated will not solve this. Quite the opposite actually."
Sophia Stevenson resisted the urge to wipe her forehead on her sleeve and had to bite her lip when she realized just how unladylike the impulse was. Of course, there was very little about her current circumstance that was ladylike at all. Perspiration was trickling down the sides of her face and she was wearing a pair of cycling pantaloons in the presence of a man. Her aunts would have brain seizures if they knew.
"You need to focus, Miss Stevenson."
Bion Donkova's tone was both condescending and irritating. It was completely unjust that the man appeared so composed while she struggled to maintain even a hint of civility. His dark eyes were full of expectation too, irritating her further. He'd already decided that she would fail and she longed to swing the wrench at his square-cut jaw.
But she wasn't raised to be a quitter. The way Bion watched her, like a school headmaster, stirred up her fighting spirit. She wouldn't back down from the challenge he'd placed before her. Nor would she waste her time on a temper tantrum.
Sophia tightened her grip on the large wrench and stretched her arm into the huge engine in front of her. Steam hissed, singeing the skin just above the protective leather glove she wore. The hot water coated the leather, making it harder to control the wrench. Oh... but she would control it!
In spite of the steam, she leaned forward so that she could see the small pipe the water was escaping from. The inside of the engine was hot and the water boiled the moment it hit the metal components that made it up. The round, purple lenses of her glasses fogged over, but she gave a little jerk of her head to shake them down her nose a bit. She peered over the rims and spotted the problem area. She fitted the wrench around the gasket and started to tighten it.
Just one more turn...
The water began to dribble, the steam decreasing until it stopped completely. She'd expected to feel relief; instead, she marveled at her own success.
A sense of accomplishment filled her, lightening her mood until she withdrew from the engine and came face-to-face with Bion Donkova.
She noticed too much about him-or more pointedly, how she felt about him-which was quite inappropriate for a young lady. But the teachings of her childhood didn't seem to stop her gaze from wandering.
His square jaw appealed to her-so did the way she had to tip her head back to make eye contact with him because of his greater height. His wide shoulder span was not at all in fashion, but she discovered that her gaze lingered on it and the thick bulges of muscle beneath his uniform coat.
But the man was frowning at her, his expression dark and unyielding. She should have been used to such after half a year, but lately she had been irritated more and more by his glowering. Instead of putting the wrench away, she hesitated and shot a hard look back into his dark eyes. Something inside her snapped, like a leather riding whip, insisting that she show him she would stand her ground instead of scurrying off like some mouse under the guise of replacing the wrench.
His eyes narrowed, taking in her challenge. He stepped closer, and for just a moment, something twisted in her belly. The intensity exceeded anything she'd felt before. Her breath froze, suspending her inside the moment for what felt like an hour before she stepped back, uncertainty smothering her pride. A lady did not allow a gentleman so close, except for during a dance when there were chaperones. Society was one hundred percent unforgiving of promiscuity.
She pushed her glasses back into position, grateful for the colored glass shielding her from his scrutiny. For some reason, it felt as though he could see right into her thoughts. Which was ridiculous, of course. But her knees felt weak.
"The entire point of the glasses is to protect your vision," Bion critiqued her. "No matter what crisis befalls the ship you are on, you need to remember that your ability to see Dimension Gates is irreplaceable. Allow your eyes to be damaged and the ship is lost just as surely as if this emergency with the engine was never solved."
"I understand the importance of being able to guide a ship through a Dimension Gate."
Those gates were like tunnels through dimensions that allowed an airship to take a shortcut across the globe. They were a marvel she'd never known about until her encounter with a Root Ball had transformed her eyes so she might see them.
"I wonder at times," Bion growled.
"You needn't," she snapped.
Sophia placed the wrench back in the small metal clamp that held it next to the engine and closed the hatch before taking off the leather gauntlet.
Oh, how she wanted to throw it at his feet...
The impulse was intense and she realized she was grinding her teeth. What was wrong with her? Bion Donkova was certainly not the first man to glower down at her while pointing out how she fell short of his expectations. For all that they lived in the Enlightened Age, men still considered themselves superior to women. At least in the society beyond the walls of the Illuminists' Solitary Chamber, they did.
"My expectations are high only because the consequences of failure are equally high," Bion continued.
For just a moment, his voice held a note of something she might have labeled concern. But that idea fled as she looked at the stone mask his face was set into. There was nothing caring in the grim set of his lips or the hard set of his jaw. But there was a flicker of something in his dark eyes which appeared very personal.
Which was ridiculous, of course. The man was her training officer. It was his duty, not his choice.
Life among the secretive Illuminist Order was supposed to be different than the Victorian world outside the walls of the Solitary Chamber. Here, a woman had the same rights as a man-as long as she was willing to earn her way. It was like a dream come true really, because outside, in the rest of London, there were plenty of women working their years away without the promise of respect. They would toil and be reminded that women should keep to their place. That it was a man's world. Among the Illuminists, she might have position and respect, even freedom to make her own choices. So she would meet the expectations of her training officer, even if he irritated her almost beyond her control.
That idea restored Sophia's confidence. She hung the glove from a peg next to the wrench, so it would be ready for the next person who had to deal with the engine, and took a deep breath. "Since it is your intention to simulate an emergency, Captain Donkova, you must accept that some risk is unavoidable. I doubt I will be of much assistance if I am preoccupied with my own discomfort. I do believe you were trying to impress upon me the idea of prioritizing."
He didn't care for her words, or maybe it was her tone, or perhaps the reason a muscle twitched along his jaw was due to her formal mode of address. Captain Bion Donkova had dark hair to go with his dark eyes, which paired rather well with his disgruntled expression. His arms were crossed over his chest, hiding his gold Illuminist Order pin.
Yet she knew it was there, pinned securely and prominently to his maroon uniform coat. There was a row of buttons running down the front of the coat and it ended at his hips like any maritime captain's uniform. But Bion was captain of an airship, a marvelous invention, the mechanics of which the Illuminist Order kept secret from the rest of the world. Like a great many other things the Order had. No one entered their world of wonders without wearing one of their membership pins.
"You should accept that everything I ask you to do has purpose, Miss Stevenson," he stated.
"I completed the requirement, thereby proving that I have achieved the skills I am expected to master," she countered.
"Your demeanor contradicts your statement," he argued, stepping closer. "I can see it in your eyes."
She stiffened and raised her chin. "Looking into my eyes is not part of your responsibility to train me, Captain." She didn't care for how irritated she sounded. The man brought out the worst in her. Why couldn't she simply ignore him? "So... good day."
She turned to leave, but he reached out and caught her upper arm. It was almost unnatural the way he moved so quickly-or without any regard for properness.
He shouldn't touch her...
She gasped and tried to shake off his hold. "I have asked you before, Captain Donkova, to maintain a decent distance between us. Your forwardness is quite vulgar."
But it is also exciting.
No, it was not!
"Stop handling me as if you were some dockside bully."
Her insult should have irritated him. Instead, his lips curled into a cocksure grin making him appear for all the world as if she had indeed challenged him by tossing the gauntlet at the tips of his polished boots.
"I suggest you be more mindful of what charges you level at me, Miss Stevenson." He pulled her closer and she was momentarily breathless again. "I do consider myself a man of action and might decide to lend truth to your accusations."
She snarled at him. The sound was soft but he heard it. For a moment, something that fascinated her flickered in his dark eyes. Excitement twisted through her belly as she became intensely aware of how warm his hand was on her arm, its heat burning through her jacket sleeve. She was being flooded with awareness. Tiny details about his features suddenly assaulted her thoughts. Part of her wanted to lean closer, discarding every bit of sense she had in order to discover how much more intensely she might feel. But his gaze dropped to her lips and she jerked back, a warning bell ringing insistently inside her mind.
This was dangerous... He was dangerous.
And she was somehow susceptible to him.
Which was completely unacceptable.
She drew herself up as prim and proper as her aunts had taught her to be. "No matter what authority the Illuminist Order grants you over me, it does not give you the right to be familiar with my person. I'm a respectable woman." She was agitated, and her Irish brogue began to surface in spite of years of practice to banish it. "And ye'll be remembering that fact, sir."
He released her and she turned her back on him-which was more for her own benefit than any slight intended against him. Not as if he'd notice; the brute was too thick-skinned for her barbs. No, she needed to be free from him so she might collect her thoughts. Sophia hurried across the mock deck of the training facility. The low ceiling and narrow corridor simulated the conditions on board airships for those learning to maintain and run the engines that powered the huge, sky-faring vessels. She hurried down a section of steps that was so steep it was practically a ladder, but her lack of a petticoat allowed her to traverse it easily. There were no skirts allowed in the engine room or, in this case, the engine room training area. She wore a pair of trousers with only a maroon uniform jacket to cover her corset.
She hurried through a doorway and struggled to compose herself as she entered one of the hallways used by Illuminist students. There were men and women of all ages. The four-block complex, known as a Solitary Chamber, was much more than a single chamber. It was a sprawling complex that was in fact a small city.
Sophia reached up to finger the silver pin on her jacket. It had a compass above the main Illuminist insignia, embedded with its tiny Deep Earth Crystal. The crystal would complete the electrical current at many of the doorways, allowing her to pass. She felt the current as she went under the large archways that led to the Novices' quarters. For an entire year, she'd wear the silver pin and there would be many arches she couldn't pass through until she took her Oath of Allegiance. The Illuminists guarded their secrets well.
She sighed once the door to her own room was closed but frowned and twisted to lean her forehead against it. The solid oak panel didn't give her the reassurance she sought because she knew very well that Bion Donkova had the authority to enter her chamber anytime he felt it necessary.
Which was too often.
He was her training officer and in many ways her judge. Inspecting her rooms was just another test she had to face on her way to becoming a full member of the Order. But she shivered because it was just so completely inappropriate. Her own father had stopped entering her bedroom years ago, in accordance with society's demand for demure and modest behavior. She'd started wearing steel-boned corsets and double petticoats the moment her body developed curves, but Bion could enter her room without even knocking.
But society considered all Illuminists beneath them. Still, she found it hard to adjust to the idea of the airship captain inside her personal rooms.
The fact that he'd had to give up his post in order to train her didn't give her much satisfaction. She couldn't quite feel grateful, and it was getting harder to ignore how much she wished him to leave her to her future.
You'd miss him...
I would not!
She forced herself to straighten and seek out a bath. The lights came on as she entered the parlor but they came on at a normal level, which was too bright for her sensitive eyes, even with her protective glasses. The Illuminist Order pin she wore engaged the lights built into panels along the walls without her needing to touch them. She squinted and hurried to turn several of them off. Deep Earth Crystals illuminated when stones of opposite gender were close. Inside each wall mounting was a male crystal. Her pin contained a female specimen. It was quite a convenience-there was none of the soot or smoke emitted by kerosene or gas lamps. No danger of fire either. Part of her longed for her father's home, with its lack of Illuminist technology, but she couldn't return to normal society.
The light level lowered, and her eyes stopped aching. She paused in front of a mirror and pulled the glasses off her face. Once she had had blue eyes as clear as a summer sky. Now there were specks of amber in them, the result of her encounter with a Root Ball, a very rare cluster of seed crystals that surrounded a new Deep Earth Crystal. When a Root Ball was exposed to water, it vaporized and the steam could alter the human eye.
For a moment, she recalled the moment when her best friend, Janette Aston, had found the Root Ball. The sun had been blistering their faces as a man named Grainger held a gun on them. Janette was a Pure Spirit. She could hear Deep Earth Crystals but had never known of them until she boldly tried to enter the Solitary Lodge one afternoon last year. Somehow, they'd both ended up on the Hawaiian Islands and it had altered Sophia's life forever.
That steam had stimulated growth in the rods of her retinas, so that her eyesight was much keener-and more sensitive.
Are you sure you are not thinking about your feelings for Bion Donkova?
She scoffed at her thoughts, rejecting such foolishness.
The airship captain had been with her in the Kingdom of Hawaii when Janette had found the Root Ball.
You're not being very kind... to wish him on his way and away from you...
Her cheeks heated with a touch of shame because her frustration was unkind. Bion had cared for her after the damned Root Ball had vaporized and she hadn't known better than to look at it. She hadn't known anything about Deep Earth Crystals or the power they could produce. The man had carried her when her knees buckled from the pain and he hadn't deserted her as she'd recovered. It hadn't been his duty to make sure she was comfortable; truly she ought to be more thankful.
Had it really only been half a year ago?
It seemed much, much longer. Janette was married and in love with her husband, and happily wore her gold Illuminist member pin now, which was fortunate, since Janette was a Pure Spirit, which meant she could hear Deep Earth Crystals-her mother had even been an Illuminist without her daughter ever knowing. Wouldn't the matrons have a delightful time spreading that rumor?
They likely were, since Janette was an Illuminist now and her mother often visited while wearing a pin of the Order. It was very likely all their names were being tarred and feathered for daring to associate with an Order that violated womanhood by stripping innocence away. Sophia had heard such lamentations many a day during tea. It had never concerned her greatly, but now it seemed fate had ensured that she discover what the Secret Order was about.
Her eyes were changed irreversibly. The dark glasses that were necessary to prevent pain from assaulting her in the bright light of day marked her as an Illuminist. She knew she didn't have to join the Order, but Bion had been quick to tell her that she would not be safe back in her father's care. She'd wanted to argue-still did-but to what end? Should she return home and hide in the back room forever and risk one of her father's well-to-do clients noticing her glasses? Her sisters would not fare well if that happened.
Besides, what sort of life was it to live in the back room of a tailor shop? She adored working with fabric, but what use was a pretty dress if she had nowhere to wear it? No ball to attend where she might waltz in her silk petticoats, and no afternoon tea with friends where they might laugh together?
That was the most useful thought she'd had all day. Well, at least since leaving Bion. The man was arrogant, but he knew the world she'd been tossed into. In a way, she'd been shanghaied. One afternoon stroll had ended with her being dragged into a carriage and taken away from her life forever. Never once in her sheltered life had she ever thought someone might use her to force her best friend to do something illegal. Of course, it was only a crime among the Illuminist Order to harvest Deep Earth Crystals for the Helikeians, but Janette had been on her way to joining the Order. The Helikeians didn't share the Illuminists' views on leaving the rest of the world alone. Their greatest wish was to gain enough Deep Earth Crystal to equip an army to conquer the world. The Illuminists had held them off for centuries, as they clung to their ideals of honor and dedication to learning. Now, Sophia's life was a series of challenges that she must conquer, or else she risked losing more.
Shanghaiing was the true word for it. It was more than sin and vice that kept the upper crust of society inside their closed carriages and their section of town. There were tales of men and women taken from dark alleys to become slaves aboard the vessels heading for the Orient. Sophia wasn't fool enough to think there were no dangers in the world; she knew some of them were just across the street from her own doorstep. But she hadn't realized there were two forces facing off that might easily wipe out everything Britain might muster to defend herself with. She paused, looking at the silver pin in a mirror. How much more was there to learn? Or fear?
It is for your protection, Miss Stevenson.
Bion's deep voice rose from her memory clear as a church bell.
Or just possibly it was more about keeping her in the possession of the Illuminist Order. Soon, she would be a Navigator. The fleet of airships the Order used to transport their goods and their members traveled through dimension gates. Only a Navigator could see the seams and guide the ship to the correct place. With her eyes altered, she was as rare a commodity as her friend Janette. Navigators were either born of two Navigator parents or created by being exposed to a Root Ball. Bion was protecting her, but he was also ensuring that she did not tip the scales by working with the Helikeians.
Not that she was tempted. No, she'd witnessed just what manner of fiends the men of the Helikeian cause were while she was in their keeping.
Sophia gave in to the urge to groan out loud. She was sick unto death of hearing about how she needed watching, guarding, and protecting, even if there was logic to support it. Little girls truly were the silliest creatures on the planet for wishing to be princesses. The royal family had to retreat behind their estate walls for any privacy and she understood how they felt. Fine possessions did not quench the yearning for freedom.
Not a bit.
Soft applause filled the mock engine room. Guardian Lykos Claxton appeared near the edge of the training stage, slowly clapping his hands. Bion clasped the rail and glared at him.
"It's not a good day to try my patience," Bion warned. His tone made it clear he wasn't toying.
Lykos cocked his head to one side, a lock of his fair hair moving across his forehead as he did so. "I am not the one straining your rather notable reserves of restraint. The culprit just left, attired in a very nice set of trousers. I fear she was somewhat uncomfortable being seen wearing trousers in public."
Bion growled softly before using his grip on the rail to assist him in jumping over it. He landed on the floor in a perfect stance; knees bent enough to absorb the shock and hands ready to deal with any threat.
Lykos lifted his hands in mock surrender. "By all means, train her as you see fit. I simply wanted to thank you for amusing me so greatly."
Bion straightened. "I warned you, Guardian..."
Lykos shook his head. "I understand you are looking for an outlet for all that turmoil our newest foundling seems to inspire inside you, but I assure you, I am not your man tonight."
Bion sent his fist into his opposite palm, the sound popping loudly across the room. "I believe you will serve quite nicely."
"I might argue on behalf of my comrade, but I discover myself agreeing with you, Captain," Guardian Darius Lawley interrupted from the doorway. He was formally attired in a brown suit that complemented his black hair and eyes. Settled in his ear was a control with several copper and brass gears that would allow him to open any door throughout the Solitary Chamber. It covered most of his ear, and when he pressed it, the door behind him closed.
"Lykos has a misplaced sense of humor at times," Darius continued. "But the ladies do enjoy his fair features."
Lykos made a face. "I have no use for ‘ladies' of any sort. Tempting your wife away from the ever-so-proper Society beyond our Order improved her immensely. The upper crust's ideal of what a woman should be is ridiculous. A lady has limbs instead of arms and a gentleman never bothers his wife with his base needs, nor can a lady be seen while in the family way, for the very sight of her rounded belly might be too much for another lady's delicate sensibilities. The lady must also not be burdened with higher learning, for it will harden her mothering instincts." Lykos shook his head. "Drivel. They spend their lives inventing rules of conduct that lack any benefit instead of expanding their minds."
"But it led to the current situation with Miss Stevenson. She was raised to be a lady yet finds herself among us-the uncivilized Illuminists. A situation bound to cause friction as she adjusts," Bion remarked dryly. "I thought you and your wife were assigned to the Hawaiian Islands, Guardian Lawley."
Darius nodded. "I had the pleasure of escorting Grainger here for trial."
"That bastard is still breathing?" Bion demanded.
"A fact I find irritating as well," Lykos agreed. "I thought the doctor predicted he would die from his head injury. You really should have done a better job of cracking the man's skull, Captain Donkova."
"An oversight I will be happy to remedy," Bion assured them.
"The law is clear. The man will have his trial and his sentence will be carried out in a civilized manner, else we are no better than he is." Darius offered them a chilling look. "The man lingered near death for weeks but managed to recover, which leaves us the task of convicting him. Since Miss Stevenson is still in a delicate state, it was determined we would come to her."
Bion snorted. "Do yourself a favor and refrain from mentioning your opinion of her current state. Miss Stevenson will be quite willing to correct you on the matter of how she views her strength."
Darius grinned. "My wife described her as a redhead masquerading as a blonde. By the look on your face, Janette's assessment appears accurate."
"I have the situation well in hand," Bion responded. No one missed the warning in his tone. "Her training is progressing well."
"All the more reason to be finished with the cause of her transformation. There will be an official inquiry tomorrow. Both of you have been summoned by the Marshals."
Bion nodded, then left the engine training room. His expression was controlled and devoid of any hints of his true feelings, but inside, he was elated. It was a savage sort of enjoyment, but one he didn't try to control. Compatriot Grainger was a Helikeian. Their Order was as old as the Illuminists', but they were very different. Helikeians would use Deep Earth Crystals and their power to build weapons for the purpose of global domination. For a solid millennia, the two orders had been clashing. Bion was certainly going to enjoy standing up before a Marshal to help Grainger get the conviction he so richly deserved.
To be sure, a part of him would rather know that the man had died from the blow to the head Bion had inflicted out on that Hawaiian lava flow. Bion snarled softly, the memory of that day still branded into his mind.
Even now, he was furious with himself. Janette Lawley was a Pure Spirit, and it had been his duty to keep her from falling into Helikeian hands. Still, he should have prevented the event that had torn Sophia away from her family.
Guilt was a bitch that chewed on him relentlessly. So much so that he had requested to be Sophia's personal advisor during her training. The posting had been approved reluctantly because his own skills as a captain were exceptional and the Order needed him back in the air fleet.
But the Order would have to wait. Becoming a Navigator was something Illuminists waited years, often decades, for. It was something many trained for but never gained the opportunity to achieve. Root Balls were rare and competition for access to them was fierce. No member of the Order ever endured the agony of the transformation without being completely willing and eager. Only the elite were selected for transformation.
Except Sophia Stevenson. She was unprepared, ignorant of the process taking place inside her. Which was his failing.
The sting of that knowledge was intense, but he didn't try to squelch it. Pain sometimes taught a deeper lesson than anything else. There was no way he would allow her to fall into the hands of a less accomplished training officer than himself.
Not a single chance in hell.
Sophia shut the book she'd been trying to read. She had classes to prepare for, but her mind was restless.
She made her way into the bathroom, still amazed by the conveniences offered by the Illuminists' society. Her father had proudly installed piped-in water a few years before to the delight of the entire family. But here in the smallest, humblest rooms of the Solitary Chamber, she might have a hot bath without heating a kettle.
What did it matter that she might take a hot bath without stoking up the fire if she could not hear her father telling his favorite hunting story at the supper table once more?
She shook off her melancholy, ordering herself to concentrate on more practical matters. More positive ones.
She had rights among the Illuminists, rights her sisters would never enjoy in high society, with its ideas of what place a woman should stand in.
Like being able to kiss Bion Donkova if you like...
She most certainly did not like that idea.
How would you know? You've never been kissed.
Well, at least not by a man, she hadn't. There had been Jonathon Saddler, who had kissed her in the Brimmers garden during a ball last spring. Somehow, she doubted Bion would hesitate when he leaned toward her or that his kiss would be anything like the soft salutation Jonathon had bestowed on her before stiffening and hurrying her back to the safety of the matrons' watchful eyes.
There were no matrons inside the Illuminist society. In fact, among her rights was the one to take a lover without repercussions. Sophia laughed, certain her mother's ghost was going to appear any second to reprimand her for even thinking such a thing.
But you've taken it a step further with thinking about how Bion might kiss you.
Sophia ground her teeth, not sure if she was exasperated or frustrated. She honestly wasn't sure anymore. The first few months she had been a Novice had not seemed so difficult. She'd had classes to attend, like at a university, the difference being that among the Illuminists, females might study any subject from anatomy to the zodiac. Heat teased her cheeks when she recalled the one anatomy class she'd attended. She had expected a lecture and arrived to find the classroom full of scale models as well as two live ones.
She unbuttoned her maroon coat and caught a glimpse of herself in the small mirror set above the sink. There was also a full-length one near the bathtub, but she'd draped a sheet over it, not wanting to see her entire body unclothed. Such was wicked, depraved, wanton...
Or at least that was what the matrons had whispered.
She drew in a deep breath and forced herself to look at her reflection in the mirror as she shrugged out of her coat. Her shoulders were smooth and sprinkled with tiny freckles. As far back as she could recall, her mother had insisted she wear a wide-brimmed hat to keep her face free of freckles to avoid being thought lowbred. In fact, everything she did was in an effort to avoid gossip and rumors. Her behavior had been constantly critiqued so that she might mend her ways before society labeled her something that might bring shame to the family.
Yet now, all of it was useless. The Illuminists were looked down upon by society, like the unfortunates who worked in the brothels or the Jews who kept to their own sections of town. Once a person began wearing the gold pin of the Illuminist Order, they were not received by the most respected members of society. There were exceptions-those who benefited from the Illuminist technology too much to look down their noses at them.
She turned the knob to fill the tub with water-it was nice, with a high back like a little slipper shoe. It was coated in white enamel and the water coming from the tap was the clearest she had ever seen. She cupped her hand beneath it, marveling at the pristine clearness. Only country homes-and the Illuminists-had such good water. According to one of her professors, they used a filtration system, but she'd not yet studied it. She did know how to use the twin levers attached to either side of the water pipe. She lifted them, and as she did so, the crystals in each lever began to react to one another. They formed a current and steam began to gently rise from the water coming from the tap. Once more she cupped the water, smiling at the temperature. A hot bath. So easily. There were advantages to being an Illuminist, no doubt about it.
She fussed with the busk closure on the front of her corset. The undergarment bothered her because she was used to making her own, which fit her perfectly. But every possession she had was lost to her now.
Another little dictate she'd learned from Bion Donkova. In all fairness, she shouldn't be cross with him because Novices were not allowed contact with anyone outside the Order during their first year, but once more her temper flickered at just the idea of the man.
Maybe she should be concerned about her reaction to him. It was definitely volatile-as though there were something inside her straining against her hold on it. Her aunts would have labeled it "base," uncivilized urges best squelched before they caused her to fall from grace. Doing so made her a lady, setting her above the common woman.
She'd been reared on such ideals, but the wonders of the Illuminist world surrounding her made it hard to hold on to such dictates. Science made sense, while her aunts' sayings rarely did.
Her aunts were right about one thing: the feelings Bion unleashed inside her were proving uncontrollable.
Stepping into the tub, she sighed as the warm water covered her skin and warmed her toes. But once she was settled, the image of Bion returned. When it came to the man appearing in her thoughts, she seemed to have little discipline. He was so meticulous, in his maroon uniform with its gleaming buttons. He never appeared with even a single dull button, nor did his chin ever have a hint of stubble. Bion didn't follow fashion, with its preference for sideburns and mustaches. His square-cut jaw was scraped clean and added to the polished image he presented.
But she'd seen another side of him-a savage side.
Heat teased her cheeks and it wasn't due to the hot water. No, it was far worse than that. Young ladies did not blush at the memory of men behaving badly. In fact, ladies did not see the sort of struggles she'd witnessed. That sort of thing was kept well on the other side of parlor doors. Yet, she was not sorry she had seen it. Somehow, it felt personal, her knowledge of Bion's true character. She liked the way it made her feel, even the way it rattled her composure, because there had been too much order in her life.
There. She'd confessed to her unladylike yearnings.
Sophia picked up a bar of soap and began to bathe. Her cheeks remained hot because Bion lingered in her thoughts, and tonight, it felt strangely intimate. As though the man were somehow aware of her fascination. Which was ridiculous of course. He was far too busy trying to mold her into his ideal of a Navigator. The man didn't suffer from her lack of focus.
Yet even after finishing her bath and drying herself, she still glanced over her shoulder, looking around the room before pressing the controls for the lights. They dimmed before leaving her room in darkness. Sometimes, it felt like the man was her personal shadow. Now that it was dark, she might admit to being comforted by that fact. At least a bit, deep down, where uncertainty was still lodged inside her despite her best efforts to face her new life without faltering. No matter how frustrating the man was, it was still nice to go to sleep knowing her world would not be completely full of strangers in the morning. Bion Donkova was bound to be there.
But she still wasn't sure if that pleased her or not.
The secured Novice wing of the dormitory was quiet. Bion stopped and looked at the logbook sitting neatly near the archways that held a collection of male Deep Earth Crystals. The only person who might cross the arch without an Illuminist pin was a Pure Spirit. There were still two Guardians posted to add more security to those Novices sleeping beyond the gate. Each coming and going was noted clearly on the creamy parchment of the log. He flipped open his pocket watch to compare the current time with the one printed next to Sophia's entry.
She wouldn't care to know how often he checked up on her. Seeing if she returned to her rooms directly after a training session or that she answered him truthfully when he asked where she'd gone the night before.
No, she wouldn't be pleased at all, but he was. Their fledgling Navigator was everything the others on the waiting list for a Root Ball had proven they were. She had integrity and grit, but all that knowledge did was frustrate him.
He didn't need to like her.
"I'm a respectable woman..."
Her words rose from his memory, offering him the perfect evidence to back up his opinion. No, liking her was something which would lead him down a path neither of them would like. For all that she was a Navigator, Miss Sophia Stevenson had been raised by upper society. He was uncouth in her eyes. A savage.
His lips twitched up and he walked through the arch to hide his lapse of control from the Guardians. Personally, he enjoyed knowing he wasn't a gentleman. In his world, he had earned his place and didn't long for the blessing of the matrons. What he was, he'd earned, not been born into. He didn't judge his fellow humans by the circumstances of their birth. In the Illuminist world, a man could make his own fortune.
He stopped outside her door. Temptation urged him to reach for the handle and forego the brass knocker, the savage inside him delighting at the idea of surprising her.
He paused, his fingers closing into a fist.
He had the authority to enter her chambers, but the right was given to him to ensure she was not conducting treason, not to placate his own cravings. But there were instances lately when he was forgetting just why he was entering her chambers-or more pointedly, he was searching for an excuse to see her, so had no other reason.
Duty was something he'd devoted his life to. Tonight wouldn't see him discarding those ideals in favor of following his impulses, whatever the hell they were... Sophia Stevenson was his trainee. Nothing more.
"Wake up, sleepyhead."
Sophia opened her eyes instantly. "Janette?" She sat up to see her best friend pulling the curtains open.
"Janette, do not-"
Her warning came too late. The morning sun brightened the room, sending pain shooting through Sophia's eyes. She jerked and closed her eyes, rolling over and reaching for her glasses, but they were not on the bedside table. Accidently, she knocked the lamp and heard it crash to the floor.
"Oh, Sophia, I'm terribly sorry. I forgot." Janette yanked the curtains closed but did so too hard and the rod they were strung on came right off the wall. The rod and curtains joined the lamp on the floor, the polished wood surface accentuating the noise.
Sophia struggled to her knees, gasping when she heard hurried footfalls a mere second before the door to her bedroom burst open. She barely had time to grab the bedding to shield herself when she found herself face-to-face with Bion Donkova, with Darius Lawley a half step behind him. Both men were attired in suits, but at that moment they looked anything but civilized.
"We're fine," Janette offered apologetically. "I just forgot about her eyes being sensitive."
"I am well enough, thank you." The polite term felt awkward as Sophia's cheeks burned scarlet. She remained clutching the bedding to her chin, squinting her eyes in the bright light.
Darius turned his back and retreated from the room, like a gentleman.
"I'll find your glasses," Janette said on her way out of the door.
"Your glasses should be placed on your nightstand." Bion frowned at her.
His tone matched the formal picture he presented in his uniform coat buttoned to his collar. In contrast, her flimsy chemise was teasing the tops of her thighs beneath the bedding. The tops of her breasts were barely hidden by the sheet because her corset pushed them up to the edge of the chemise. The reprimand on his face did not fit with the impropriety of the moment.
For Christ's sake, if a man was looming over her bed while she was indisposed... shouldn't he be enamored of her? Or at the very least somewhat interested in charming her? But then again, it was Bion. Nothing about her pleased him.
"If your glasses were in the correct place, you would not have alarmed other members of the crew," he admonished.
"We are not aboard one of your ships, Captain, and I certainly will not be taking advice from you on how I keep myself in my bedroom." She rose up on her knees, the need to face him head-on burning through any protest her common sense might have made. "And I am not dressed, sir!"
"I've seen you in less."
Her eyes widened, the deep tone of his voice setting off a ripple of excitement racing along her skin. Her mouth dropped open and satisfaction flickered in his dark eyes, the remains of her composure shredded. Bion Donkova had fast reflexes, but today she was faster. Her hand connected with his face, delivering a slap that resounded loudly in the morning air.
She expected him to be furious; instead, the man growled. The sound sent her back, the sheer maleness of it making her shiver. Challenge appeared in his eyes and his lips curved up into an arrogant smirk. For a moment, he looked very much like a pirate, the sort of man accustomed to being ruthless in the pursuit of what he craved.
He gripped the footrail of her bed and leaned forward. "But if you can't tolerate the threat to your modesty, feel free to cry out. I'm sure Guardian Lawley will be happy to rescue you before you fall victim to a fit of vapors."
Her temper boiled. If it were possible for steam to rise from her ears, it would have. But her pride refused to let his challenge pass. With a soft hiss, she forced herself to release the bedding and climb out of bed. The urge to tug her chemise up to cover more of her breasts was also squelched as she lifted her chin and shot him a scorching look.
"I can handle your gutter behavior quite well. Look as you will. All that proves is how much you deserve my contempt."
She intended to walk past him, but he captured her wrist, his larger hand closing all the way around her limb. It wasn't the first time he'd manhandled her, but for some reason she was acutely aware of how much strength he had today. Tension curled through her belly, teasing her with a flicker of heat she'd never experienced before. It was dark and tempting and almost irresistible. Almost.
He chuckled, amusement still flickering in his eyes. His grip tightened a mere fraction, almost as if he might disregard her demand.
Pirate... ruthless and without boundaries. Why had she never realized just what sort of nature he had hidden beneath his formal exterior and endless lectures about duty?
She was trembling, the realization of which cut through her outrage like a rapier. Something in his gaze made it look as if he was reading her thoughts, which was impossible. But she felt it nonetheless.
He pulled her closer, until they were mere inches apart. "I do believe I might just enjoy your attempts to handle my gutter behavior, Miss Stevenson."
His voice was low and edged with warning. What flared up in the depths of his dark eyes made her shiver. He felt it, that telltale reaction through his grip on her wrist. He smoothed his thumb across the tender skin of her inner wrist before lifting her hand and boldly pressing a kiss against the same spot.
It was nothing like the kiss Jonathon Saddler had given her. This was scorching hot and it stole her breath. Her heart began to race, feeling as if it were straining to break free of her chest. Every bit of self-control she had seemed to be slipping through her fingers like sand, leaving her without anything to hold on to.
With a savage jerk, she twisted her wrist, angling to break his grip at the weakest spot, as she'd learn in her Asian fighting classes. He straightened instantly, his larger body adopting a polished fighting stance to prove he knew far more about the Eastern arts than she did. Something lit his eyes, but she shied away from taking a closer look at it. A warning rose up from her mind, telling her to beware of learning more about this side of his nature. Or her reaction to it.
She hurried around him, brushing past a startled Janette and slamming shut the bathroom door, betraying just how unsettled she was. What horrified her most was the way she collapsed onto the closed lid of the toilet, her legs trembling too much to support her. She shook her head, hugging her wrist to her chest. She could not-would not-be affected by him so deeply.
The grand hall of the Solitary Chamber was impressive. Its ceiling rose a full two stories and was constructed with elegant arches. The molding would have put Buckingham Palace to shame with its intricate details. The center was carpeted with thick, burgundy carpet. The windows stretched up to the ceiling, with foot-wide panes of glass and velvet curtains edged with tassels framing them. The cost in velvet was enough to make her tailor's brain reel, but when Sophia added in the pressed chenille wallpaper, the opulence was astounding.
But she couldn't enjoy the moment. Instead of taking the time to appreciate all the detail of the inner sanctum of the Solitary Chamber, Sophia had to battle to maintain her self-control. At the end of the hall, standing near the raised portion of the floor, were three Marshals, or judges. The scales of justice graced their Illuminist pins, whereas Bion's had a compass denoting his career path among the air fleet. Guardian Lawley was waiting as well, his pin displaying crossed swords to proclaim his position as a constable.
For all appearances, they looked like men she had lived among her entire life. They were dressed in wool trousers with pin-tucked shirts and cravats worn over vests with watch pockets and jackets constructed of tweed.
After all the warnings she'd endured about how unnatural the Illuminist Order was, she discovered herself agreeing with many of the ways they operated, such as allowing women to testify at a trial. It seemed quite logical; after all, she had been the one abducted.
Satisfaction warmed her, burning away her self-doubt and the last of the strange reaction she'd had to Bion. Now she was consumed by the need for justice. Grainger had been the one behind her abduction. His ruffians had grabbed her right off the street; Grainger had ripped her mother's cameo off her neck, setting his trap in motion. He'd taken such delight in her suffering and gleefully tormented her by reiterating his plans to torture her if Janette did not arrive to do his bidding once she received Sophia's cameo.
Oh yes, she was going to enjoy the right of an Illuminist member to testify regardless of her gender. Among the Illuminists, being female did not mean she had fewer rights. It was like something out of a little girl's dream world, and yet, it was solid reality for those willing to pledge themselves to the secretive Order. She looked over at the man who had so easily put a bullet through her leg in his quest to harvest Deep Earth Crystals.
Grainger was still just as repulsive as she recalled. Compatriot Grainger, actually. Among the Helikeians, they referred to one another as Compatriots.
Sophia didn't chastise herself for staring at the man. It was almost necessary in a way, because her life had changed so drastically the moment she had met him. Her gaze lowered to his wrists and the silver handcuffs keeping him prisoner. He'd used rope to make her just as helpless and put a burlap sack over her head before stuffing her into a pit.
The fear she'd suffered still felt too fresh. It rose up from her memory, thick and choking.
She shook it off, looking away from the man. But she ended up locking gazes with Bion. His dark eyes were too keen and, she felt, appeared as though he could read her thoughts as plainly as the morning news circular. She was clasping her hands so tightly, her fingernails dug into her palms. Janette stood nearby with her husband, Darius, at her side. He had a hand gently resting on the small of her back. It should have slightly shocked her, such an intimate touch displayed so publicly. Instead, Sophia discovered herself glad for her friend, but that same emotion only highlighted just how alone she felt.
Well, there was nothing for it. Honestly, that wasn't something that had changed since being abducted either. She had no suitor missing her.
"This trial will be called to order."
She looked back at the Marshals, fighting against the tide of emotions seeing Grainger was unleashing.
Later. Yes, later she might take the time to nurse her personal hurts. For the moment, she would be strong and steady. The Marshal standing in the center lifted a gavel and pounded it onto the desk in front of him. The sound reminded her of the crack of gunpowder right before a bullet had torn through her leg, and she flinched. Grainger had been so pleased with his ability to harm her out on that lava flow. She lost the battle to not look at him again.
The man was grinning at her. The Marshal began to read the charges against him, but all the formal-sounding voice did was solicit a flicker of achievement in Grainger's eyes, leaving no doubt that he believed completely in the Helikeian cause.
"Mr. Grainger. You stand accused of being a Helikeian and, in the service of that order, you committed the crime of abducting Miss Sophia Stevenson. Furthermore, you planned to harvest Deep Earth Crystals after forcing the compliance of Mrs. Lawley." The Marshal peered over the edge of his spectacles at Grainger. "Do you have any defense to render to this court?"
"Of course I do," Grainger insisted. "But you are too ignorant to understand the purity of the Helikeian Order. You accept any member, taking in the strays and lowbred. It weakens you. Soon, we will crush you and the ridiculous governments allowed to flourish like mold on the face of the Earth. The Pure Spirit Mrs. Lawley is rightfully ours. Our actions created her; it was our cunning that separated her bloodline from your Order. She belongs to us." He suddenly shot a look at Sophia that curled her toes. "Just as you belong to us because I had a hand in your creation."
"I do not." Formal hearing or not, Sophia didn't think she could have held her tongue if the queen herself were present. "Nor shall I ever."
Grainger's eyes brightened with anticipation. "You will."
Icy dread tingled up the nape of her neck. It spread quickly, traveling across her skin and leaving her fighting the urge to tremble-she would not. Not here, not while Bion watched.
"Enough!" The Marshal pounded the gavel again.
"It is not enough!" Grainger snarled. "Only after we have reduced you to rubble will it be enough! You do not hold any power over me! I will prevail. I am superior to you, my very blood more pure!"
"Remove the accused!" the Marshal ordered.
"With pleasure," Bion bit out. It wasn't his place or his duty, but no one stopped him from gripping Grainger's arm and pulling him around to face the back of the hall.
Grainger surprised them all by laughing. It was a high-pitched sound that hinted at lunacy. Bion towered over him, but Grainger drew himself up like a nobleman being propositioned by a street whore.
"Remove your inferior hands from my person! I come from a pure bloodline that has served the Helikeian Order for hundreds of years. No one here is my equal. We shall prevail!"
Bion dragged Grainger from the hall and the Marshal shook his head. The Guardians positioned at the back of the hall snapped into action and took Grainger through the doors.
"The man is insane," the Marshal announced. "Quite out of his mind I'd say."
"He was in his right mind well enough when he held a gun on my wife and forced her to harvest Deep Earth Crystals." Darius Lawley spoke up. "He should be shot for treason or attempted murder at the least."
The Marshal stared back at him with a bland expression. "We are not savages. We do not execute the mentally unstable. We shall leave barbaric behavior to the unenlightened beyond our Order and the Helikeians. Judgment will be suspended until a physician declares the accused able of facing the accusations lodged against him."
The Marshal lifted his gavel and pounded it against the desk twice. The sound was piercing, ripping a hole in Sophia's peace of mind. "But... what does that mean?"
"It means we'll have the privilege of keeping Grainger under lock and key while his comrades enjoy the fact that he is still among the living in spite of his crimes," Bion muttered from across the hall.
"This is not an airship, Captain Donkova," the Marshal admonished. "Justice does not need to be so black and white here. Unlike the close confines of an airship, we have the facilities to care for the criminally insane."
Bion closed the distance between them, his stride determined. "So we will waste resources on curing the man before we condemn him?" Bion's tone left no doubt that he wasn't really asking a question. It was dry and condescending, earning him a dark look from the Marshal.
"We shall conduct ourselves as civilized men, ones who do not seek vengeance, but instead focus on maintaining justice."
The Marshal struck the desk again, harder and sharper this time. All three stood and exited the hall. The level of intensity went with them, leaving Sophia feeling disappointed. She turned and left, her emotions swirling in a turbulent cyclone.
Did she want Grainger dead? She honestly didn't know. Part of her was relieved to not have to lend her testimony toward condemning a man. But that left her wondering if she was a coward, one of the many who demand justice but are unwilling to stand up and face those they wanted punished.
One thing was certain and that was that she avoided making eye contact with Bion Donkova as she passed him. She could feel his dark gaze on her, but she kept her attention on the door, proving without a doubt that she was a coward.
"You're on dangerously thin ice, Captain."
Bion slowly grinned at Darius. "A place where, I assure you, I'm quite comfortable, Guardian Lawley."
Darius chuckled softly, taking a moment to notice that his wife was heading out of the sanctum in pursuit of her friend.
"It is a facet of my personality you have already encountered." Darius jerked his attention away from Janette's exit and stared at Bion. "I was willing to let you and others believe me a traitor," Bion continued. "I knew you and your team might kill me before any explanation could be rendered, so kindly spare me the lecture I see brewing in your eyes. I do not live my life on safe ground, not when there are Helikeians to expose. Our own laws allow them to infiltrate our ranks. Unmasking them will not be simple or done on safe ground."
"We are not talking about Helikeians, but of your personal involvement with your trainee," Darius advised. "I have treaded on that thin ice; it's a perilous journey between duty and distraction. Miss Stevenson might well be worth the risk, but you need to be careful how many rules you challenge along the way."
Bion shook his head. "You mistake the situation, Guardian. Miss Stevenson is my responsibility; the only distraction is her propensity to challenge my authority. I continue to hope she will mature past such behavior."
Guardian Lawley surprised him by grinning. Bion couldn't claim to know the man well, but what experience he did have with Lawley had been facing a man with iron control. The amusement on his face was a stark contrast to the man he'd dealt with in the Hawaiian Islands.
"Do enlighten me, Captain. Exactly when did it become standard practice to instruct Navigator Novices over the footrails of their beds with the sort of personal remarks I heard this morning?"
"There is little privacy aboard airships. Miss Stevenson is best prepared if she learns that now," Bion remarked calmly, but heat was rising beneath his collar. Guardian Lawley merely continued to grin, making it plain he wasn't swayed by Bion's response-excuse, really.
Bion turned and left the sanctum. Frustration was sitting heavily on his back, the lack of satisfaction from the hearing making him edgy. Grainger deserved death. The man was a bastard of the worst sort, one without remorse or compassion for those he had injured. The man hadn't hesitated when he'd put a bullet through Sophia's leg and Bion was certain he would happily continue his service to the Helikeians if freedom was his once more.
Damned Helikeians. They were as old as the Illuminist Order and could trace their roots back to the ancient civilizations that had given them their foundation in knowledge. Long after the Greeks had been conquered, their devotion to science, logic, and learning was still being cultivated by the two Orders. The difference was, the Illuminists had long ago cast off prejudice. Membership was open to anyone willing to pledge themselves to the Order. That didn't come without a cost, for society shunned anyone wearing an Illuminist pin on their person. But loyalty was the price expected to enter the world of the Illuminists.
The Helikeians had split off centuries before, when they began to favor arrogance over tolerance and power over knowledge. Now, they dreamed of conquering the world and disposing of anyone they judged inferior, "purifying the bloodlines," as they called it. They would stop at nothing to gain the upper hand over the Illuminists.
Sophia was just a commodity in their eyes.
Bion felt the sting of that fact like a new tattoo. She was too naive to understand, too much a product of her upbringing beyond the walls of the Illuminist world. It fell to him to ensure she did not fall into Helikeian hands. If she did, it would be his duty to neutralize her, by ending her life if that was the only means available to him.
From the moment he'd been accepted as a junior cadet in the airship corps at the tender age of sixteen, his life had been dedicated to duty. Each year and rank along his path to Captain had only seen him facing deeper personal commitments. There was no reason training a Novice Navigator should test him so greatly. Or frustrate him like Sophia did.
Yet another challenge of her society upbringing-an Illuminist woman didn't have any difficulty embracing passion. If she hadn't been raised by puritan Victorian society, he just might try his hand at kissing her. Becoming lovers would certainly be a better use for the sparks that flew between them.
He bet she'd slap him again.
But all that knowledge did was make him think about trying it.
Asian fighting was something Sophia found fascinating. It was a technique from the Far East that the Illuminist Order offered classes in. As far back as she could recall, she'd been told how ladies should be sheltered by the men of the house. Only fallen women resorted to defending themselves. It was uncivilized and unladylike.
Yet among the Illuminists, learning to defend yourself wasn't frowned upon. In fact, all members were encouraged to learn some form of self-defense to strengthen the security of the Order.
Bion's idea of encouraging her had been to bluntly order her to begin taking classes.
At least she didn't resent this order. Her training included a form of kicking and punching that made pugilists look like fools. The men in the local pub punching one another in the face until one fell wouldn't last a full minute with one of the masters of the Asian fighting arts. They used their bodies in amazing ways, teaching her to deliver a blow that would drop a man despite her smaller size.
Her master was from China, but he was unlike any of the Chinese people she had seen scurrying down the streets with their heads lowered. He held himself with pride. Outside the Solitary Chamber, her father's elite customers would look down their noses at him, declaring him a street urchin. How wrong they were. He was a master of an art she was in awe of.
She arrived for class and began to stretch like the other students. Her uniform consisted of a baggy pair of pants that ended at her ankles and a tunic top. There was nothing else to the uniform, so she'd taken to wearing a camisole beneath it to support her breasts. A corset was out of the question because the fighting form required twisting and bending.
At least the preparation for class was something she knew how to do. Her father had sent her and her sister off to ballet class for many years to ensure they learned to move gracefully. Her father would certainly be surprised to see how she was using her flexibility now.
For just a moment, she indulged herself and let her father's face remain in the center of her thoughts. But a moment later, Grainger's face rose from her memories to torment her with just how she had been separated from her family. She shook her head to clear her thoughts. The master instructor wasn't just accomplished in the art he taught; the man could spot anyone daydreaming in his class.
And he had very creative ways of helping his students recover their focus.
But her attention wandered once again when Bion entered the room. He stopped at the edge of the hardwood floor that made up the instruction area and bowed respectfully toward the master. He was wearing the same clothing she was, but he didn't need his uniform to look like a captain. The man simply did not blend in with the rest of the students. He looked far too confident.
Suspicion tingled along her nape as she watched him move to the front of the room and bow to the master once more. The class was called to order, saving her from her curiosity. Students lined up according to rank, leaving her at the back of the room. Bion remained in the front row as they began their first exercise. The pace of the class was demanding, and it required all of her attention. It suited her mood and she applied herself vigorously to the hour of training. Maybe exhaustion would help her sleep in spite of her confrontation with Grainger. Her uniform became saturated with perspiration and her hair was wet with it when it came time to bow and end the class.
"Miss Stevenson, remain for the second hour of instruction."
The master's command stunned her because only advanced students were invited to the next class, where the basic moves she was practicing were applied to a live opponent. But no one argued with the master.
"Yes, sir," she replied with a quick bow. She fought the urge to look over at Bion. The master was not a man influenced by others often, but she had to admit that she had no idea what manner of relationship Bion had with him.
She tried to shake off her feelings, because once again she was far too close to pitying herself, which wouldn't do. Maybe she was separated from her family until her novitiate ended, but she would not disgrace them by failing to face a challenge head-on. That was the Stevenson way, the Irish blood in them. She could hear her father's booming voice rising up from her memory as he lectured her brothers about never forgetting that the Stevensons were strong enough to weather any storm. She leveled her chin before facing the master.
"Today, we shall put to test what you have learned."
She bowed, not really understanding, although her belly was balled up with apprehension.
"You have been learning how to shift your weight and use knowledge to defeat your opponent."
Bion moved closer, making her struggle to keep her eyes on the master. Heat radiated from him, the kind that you could detect even after the fire had been reduced to ashes, the bricks of the fireplace warming your hands for hours.
He warms your temper, sure enough.
"Today, I wish to challenge you with more than practicing against an imaginary opponent," the Master continued.
She lost the battle to keep her gaze away from Bion and cut a quick look at him. His expression might be unreadable, but there was satisfaction in his eyes.
"Captain Donkova will assist you by being your attacker."
Her temper was heating up.
"Attempt to prevent him from breaking your balance."
She needed to focus, but it was proving difficult. Curse the man...
Bion bowed to her before spreading his feet and arms. He was set to lunge at her, and in another second, he did. She remembered what to do but did it too slowly to prevent him from locking his arms around her.
"You'd better fight me off, because I'm not going to play the gentleman and let you go," he whispered next to her ear. His warm breath set off a tiny response that rippled down her neck. The unexpected feeling propelled her into action. She rammed her knee into his groin.
He sucked in his breath, his hold loosening, and she turned, ducking under his arm while holding on to his other wrist and using the hold to pull his arm across her body. She ended up behind him, with his arm locked.
"Well done," the Master praised.
That was her cue to release him, but she paused a moment with him in her grasp, rebelling against the rules. It was an intense little impulse that flared up in response to knowing that she had him at her mercy.
Bion didn't care for being bested by her. When she faced him once again, she could see the determination in his eyes. His controlled expression was slipping just a bit, his lips thinned as he bowed and took another aggressive stance. He wasn't going to show her any mercy.
She didn't want any. That feeling came from the same place her impulse to keep him pinned had-deep down in the part of her nature she'd always locked away because it was in conflict with every ideal her life had been full of... up until now. Now, being a lady didn't matter, defeating Bion did.
And she wanted to.
It was a furious need, one that had her taking a fighting stance and moving slowly to make sure he didn't push her into a corner.
Surprise appeared in his eyes a split second before he attacked once more. They grappled, struggling to gain advantage over the other. Bion cursed under his breath when she broke out of his first attempt to capture her. She wasn't sure how she did it. It wasn't a matter of thinking but of responding.
She caught a glimpse of his white teeth as he grinned before he hunched over and launched himself at her. He caught her firmly around the waist and drove her backward onto the floor with his full weight.
"Your knee won't be much use now, my little Novice."
"I am not yours in any sense... of... the... word." Her last word came out as a wheeze because the man was on top of her. She struggled to draw breath while battling against panic.
It was just there, the fear, the unmistakable taste of helplessness left over from when she'd been Grainger's prisoner. It rose up like a demon from hell, terrifying her with its grasping claws. She bucked, surprising Bion with her strength, but she was past noticing him. Her heart was pounding so hard, it felt as if it might burst and sweat beaded on her skin as she struggled to free herself.
The master clapped his hands a single time and Bion released her instantly. For a moment, she lay on the polished wood floor feeling exposed. It was as if the air was too cool now that Bion wasn't on top of her.
She rolled over, her cheeks burning scarlet as shame tore through her. The emotional surge left her trembling, her muscles threatening to fail her. Tears escaped from her eyes, but her face was slick with perspiration so they didn't leave trails-except across her mind each one burned, increasing her humiliation. The remaining minutes of the class were a torment. The moment she was dismissed, she fled.
"I'm surprised Master Lee allowed that."
Bion stiffened and his eyes narrowed when Guardian Decima Talaska smiled. She was a veteran Guardian Hunter; her specialty was hunting down traitors, but he didn't enjoy knowing she'd snuck up on him.
"Master Lee understands my training methods," Bion responded. "It's part of the Asian mind-set to train harder when faced with difficult circumstances." His tone was designed to end the conversation, but Decima stepped into his path.
"What is your hurry, Captain? I am quite convinced your trainee is on her way back to her quarters."
Decima gave her Asian fighting uniform a tug so that the crisp cotton snapped. "Since you appear to be in the mood to grapple with a smaller operant, I believe I can use the practice."
Bion shook his head. "My goal was to impress upon Miss Stevenson the reality of what she might someday have to face."
"Interesting." Decima drawled softly. "According to her file, she has performed very well in her time here. I saw nothing to indicate such a harsh lesson might be needed. In fact, her first encounter with our Order was nothing short of brutal. The fact that she has already begun Asian fighting training shows her respect for the need to defend herself."
"I don't need to defend my methods to you, Guardian," Bion insisted. "She is not the first Navigator I have trained."
"Yet she is the first Novice you have attempted to guide through her transition."
Bion shook his head. "That makes little difference."
Decima abandoned her teasing demeanor. Her features hardened and he found himself facing the side of her that made her so successful as a Hunter. The woman had a spine of solid steel.
"A Novice needs guidance. Something your little grappling lesson lacked completely. In fact, I'm almost sure she'll have nightmares tonight."
"I doubt it." But his gut twisted as he failed to believe his own words.
"I saw her face when she left; you didn't." Decima's words sliced into him. "So if you're finished tormenting your trainee, I'll be happy to give you a target with enough training to make you work for your victory."
The master was calling the next class to order. Bion looked at the door until a soft scoff from Decima drew him back into class. It was only after they were beginning that he noticed the flicker of amusement in her green eyes. He shook his head slightly as he admitted defeat. Guardian Decima had played him perfectly, and there was a lesson in being so predictable.
Just as there was one in her words about guidance. But what stuck in his mind long after class and into the evening was her warning about Sophia suffering nightmares.
That twisted his gut.
The Solitary Chamber encompassed an entire four-block section of town and Sophia didn't even know how far the structures extended belowground. In fact, she'd seen only a very small percentage of the inside of the Illuminist community. Once a prospective member passed the entrance exam, they studied for an entire year as a Novice. Her membership pin was silver, not gold like the full members.
There was also a crystal in the center of it. The crystal would complete the circuit and allow her into sections of the chambers where only those who had taken their Oath of Allegiance might go. The Illuminist Order had many fine comforts, but learning about the science behind those amazing things would cost a member loyalty.
Death was the penalty for treason. The Illuminists only shared their knowledge with those willing to pledge themselves to the idea of utilizing all their effort toward greater learning.
She hurried down the hallways, making her way to the wing of Novices' dormitories. She reached the wing of rooms assigned to her. First she passed two Guardians standing at the gates. One pressed on the device fitted over his ear and the gates' current was completed so that she could pass through to the rooms assigned to her. Her rooms were little comfort; every noise made her flinch.
Scolding herself didn't improve the situation. Her belly rumbled because she hadn't stopped at the common kitchen for food. Bathing made her skin feel normal again. But she still felt Bion's hands on her...
No, you do not! You will not and that's the end of it!
A few pieces of bread sat on the table in the small center room. It wasn't much of a parlor, but she didn't have many friends to invite over so it didn't matter. There were several stacks of books on the table now and a napkin folded around the bread. She sat and chewed on one slice. She thought tea sounded divine, but it would keep her awake, so she resisted the urge and washed the bread down with water. The water itself was a marvel. She held up the glass and looked at it, still astounded by the purity.
Right across the street from the Solitary Chamber in her father's tailor shop, which was located in the best portion of town, the water was not nearly as good. The family had lived on the second floor since her mother died. In a way, she'd been glad her father had moved them, for she couldn't stomach the home she'd lived in for the first ten years of her life because everywhere she looked she saw her mother.
And now, she saw Grainger.
She shuddered and the water sloshed over the rim of the glass. She put it down and wiped her fingers on the edge of her chemise. The room was dark except for the lamp nearest the bed. Reaching for the controls to extinguish the light gave her another pause, but she ordered herself to do it. She was not afraid of the dark.
Only of Bion's touch...
No! Not even that. Once in bed, she forced herself to recite Bible verses until she fell asleep. But even with such divine mental occupation, her rest was not peaceful. She kicked at the bedding, thrashing as Grainger's face filled her dreams. There was the gun, and she felt her flesh being torn by the bullet once again.
We created you... She tried to run, only to discover her body pinned to the ground.
You belong to us... Grainger's voice was louder and closer and more hideous than she recalled. It was like pure evil, if such a thing might have a tone. She strained against the man holding her down, finally jerking up and gaining her freedom. But only for a moment because she collided with another hard body.
"Sweet Sophia, you seem to need assistance."
Sophia was still caught between sleep and reality. Not really awake, the sound of his voice was soothing. She dug her fingers into his clothing as another shiver shook her. Bion was just another piece of her dream.
"It was a dream." He wrapped her tightly in his embrace, ending her struggles as she shivered.
The fear had retreated mostly, but it was still there, lingering near enough for her to feel it. Bion's voice confirmed that Grainger wasn't there and for the moment, that was all her exhausted mind could absorb. She gave a little sigh as his scent filled her senses. Even through the wool of his coat she could detect the familiar smell. She wasn't thinking, wasn't concerned with the frustrations that he so often elicited from her.
She snuggled closer, seeking immersion in his embrace. His hand moved slowly along her back, soothing her with a long stroke and then another that sent delight through her. Who might have thought that such a simple touch might be so enjoyable?
Somewhere in the back of her exhausted mind, there was a reason why she shouldn't continue to rest against him, a logic that would have her struggling out of his embrace if she weren't so sleepy. But all that mattered was that she trusted him to keep Grainger away.
Bion Donkova didn't know how to fail. For the moment, she was content to be his primary duty.
Bion was frozen in shock. It took him a moment to realize Sophia Stevenson had reduced him to indecision with nothing more than a soft sigh. But what a sound it was! Feminine, delicate... needy. Damn, he didn't need to think of her wanting him.
It wasn't the first time he'd been pressed against her, but this time was so vastly different. He sat for several long moments, just savoring the feeling of her breath against his neck. Her heart was beating against his chest, slowing down as she relaxed into a deeper sleep.
He gently cradled her upper body and lowered her to the surface of her bed. She frowned and made another needy sound as she turned one way and then the other. Her lips pushed into a pout as she twisted again. He smoothed the hair off her face and she sighed again, turning toward him... seeking him.
Ah hell. He should leave. She would be furious-there was no doubt about that. But that thought made it even easier for him to kick off his boots and lie down beside her. He had a fascination with her temper, possibly an unhealthy one, but it was wrapping its roots around him more and more with every encounter.
It was far too simple, too enjoyable to gather her against his side. And he liked the contented sound she made as she nuzzled against his chest... far too much.
But he was fairly sure he'd attempt to kill any man who tried to make him leave.