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‘Oh, you mean how we’re best friends now?’
He gives me a crooked grin. ‘I wouldn’t go that far, but she’s definitely trying to get on your good side.’
‘At least she’s not trying to kill me.’
‘Again, I wouldn’t go that far,’ he says.
‘The more things change,’ I mutter.
‘Just forgive me?’ he says, and I groan at the circularity of his thoughts. He’s like a puppy chasing his tail, except it’s mine he’s after.
‘I forgive you,’ I say. ‘But it doesn’t change anything.’
‘I can wait.’
‘Erik,’ I say, struggling with how much I want to share. ‘It’s not only that. I’m not the same as I was a few weeks ago. Things have changed, and it would be a waste of your time to wait around for me.’
He looks down at me as though he’s watching my neurons firing, and I shrink back from his penetrating gaze. ‘I should have known,’ he says, a hint of a smile playing on his lips before fading away.
I bite down on the inside of my cheek and keep my eyes on the floor. Something in his voice is giving me goosebumps, but he can’t actually know...
‘Look,’ he says, ‘I get it. But there’s something you need to consider. I have more resources at my disposal and a certain value to the Guild. He doesn’t. You’ll get him killed.’
I swallow hard and glance up to his watching eyes. ‘Is that the best you’ve got?’
‘I’m not trying to steal you,’ he says, lowering his voice. ‘I know Jost better than you think. I don’t want to see anybody get hurt.’
‘That’s thoughtful of you,’ I murmur.
‘Think what you want,’ he says. We’re at the door to the brass lift. Reaching forward, he presses the Up button and holds the door when it opens. We step in. When the lift door slides closed, he leans down. I can feel his breath warm against the back of my ear.
‘Remember what I said to you that night at the ball?’
His words tingle in my ear and down my neck, but I manage a nod.
‘You know that plan we discussed. If you finally have one, now’s the time to use it.’
The tingle turns into an electric charge and my pulse builds frenetically in my chest, wrists, ears. ‘Well, I don’t,’ I whisper.
‘Then think of one,’ he says into my hair.
He lingers there for a moment, and I close my eyes, wondering if that kiss really meant nothing to me. The ding of the lift door snaps them back open. Beside me, Erik straightens and extends his arm to hold the sliding door – protecting me – as I cross the threshold.
The strands of light wrapping one another in the void mesmerise me. I’ve found the seam in Loricel’s illusion and opened it. I clutch my right arm against my body; my fingers ache to reach out, to discover what the thick rough weave feels like. I force myself to keep my hands back away from the breach now. This room, here in the distant tower, where we can call any place in Arras before us, is the only place that feels real.
‘You could waste away there,’ Loricel says behind me.
The studio was empty when I arrived, but I knew she’d be back soon. Now that she’s here, I wish I had more time alone to study the rift. If I’d been here much longer, I might have crossed the line and touched the rough, raw material that billows out between Earth and Arras.
Loricel moves to stand beside me. ‘It’s hard to fathom, isn’t it?’
‘I see it,’ I say, ‘but it feels like another illusion . . . I want to touch it.’
‘Like your hands are physically being drawn to it,’ she says.
‘You too?’
‘Have you?’
‘No.’ There’s the firmness of resignation to her voice. ‘I guess I don’t want to know. There’s so much possibility until I touch it. Perhaps its powers outweigh my own, or perhaps I could manipulate the raw material as I manipulate the fabric of Arras. I don’t know which I prefer, so I keep my fingers back.’
‘When did you see it the first time?’ I ask.
‘Kinsey, my predecessor, showed me,’ she says, tilting her head and regarding me with half-open eyes.
‘And all these years? You’ve never—’
‘Perhaps I’m a coward.’
‘No.’ I shake my head. ‘I think it’s harder not to touch it. I want to so badly. It’s a compulsion. I admire your ability to deny it this long.’
Loricel snorts. ‘Maybe I’ll do it before I die.’
I sigh deeply and turn to close the spot. My fingertips burn when they skim the raw material as I repair the hole; it’s the most feeling I’ve had in them for weeks.
‘You can feel it?’ she asks.
‘It’s pulsing. Alive,’ I say quietly.
‘Because it is full of life,’ she says. ‘I know this is hard for you to accept.’
‘How do you close opened eyes?’ I ask her, desperate to know how she’s restrained herself through the years.
‘Like you do at night,’ she instructs me. ‘You work the loom until you’re too tired to go on, and then your eyes close naturally.’
‘Is that why you’re refusing renewal?’
‘Yes, I know it must feel horribly unfair. My leaving you here to take over, but—’