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Chapter 11

Orden’s hands were warm and gentle on either side of Mia’s jaw as he lifted and turned her head this way and that. They sat in the clearing, in the same exact spot where Vander had left Mia earlier.

Mia winced as Orden prodded a spot to the right of her trachea with two fingers, and sucked a breath between her teeth. His eyes darted to hers, then back to her throat as he continued his examination with a closed look on his face.

“Does it hurt to swallow?” He asked quietly.

She nodded.

Orden clicked his tongue against his teeth and released a puff of air through his nose. “Well, the damage might have been worse,” he said, removing his hands, “There’s a good deal of swelling around the airway, and you’ll have a lovely necklace of bruises—” He tilted his head to the side, “unless you would like me to heal them for you?”

“No,” The word was a painful rasp.

Orden gave her an unsurprised look. As if he’d guessed what her answer would be before he’d asked the question. Orden shook his head, his mouth a tight line beneath the beard, but he didn’t press it further. These bruises would be no different from the ones that had come before. They would remain, just as the deep scratches left by her nails would remain. A daily reminder of what Vander had done to her.

It was probably a wasted sentiment, dramatic and stupid, but it made Mia feel better to think Vander would see the injuries he’d bestowed and feel some sense of shame. If not, Hanna and Breahn were sure to see the marks and do the shaming for her. The thought brought Mia little joy, only resentment and an overwhelming sense of defeat. The altercation with Vander had opened her eyes, and had left her shaken.

It wasn’t so much the brutality of his reaction, although that did have a hand in it. In all honesty, Mia hadn’t expected anything less from him, he’d definitely never given her a reason to. No. It was the ease with which Vander had done it. She hadn’t stood a chance against him.

Stupid. Mia had been stupid to attack him. To delude herself into thinking she could beat him with Power when she could barely hold her ground when they sparred. Mia had acted on impulse, too mad to think it through. Overconfident in her growing abilities and emboldened by having beaten him once already. It was all too clear now, that that first time had been an utter fluke. She’d caught him off guard, nothing more. Today had made that plain.

What a wonderful reminder of how out of her depth Mia really was. How hopeless.

Mia swallowed past the bundle of thorns in her throat. Vander could easily have killed her today and he was right: Mia wouldn’t have been able to do a thing to stop him. The thought made her stomach twist itself into knots. If it had been Kairos in the clearing with her, she’d be dead. Dead before she even had the chance to fight. To live. To love. To do anything worthwhile with her life.

Orden heard the loud sniff, saw the far-off look in her eyes and misunderstood completely. “I did warn you not to test him.”

Mia blinked slowly, and slanted her eyes at Orden. “What?”

“I warned you of his temper.” Orden said, perhaps a little more hesitantly.

Mia went cold and hot all at once. Fear and self-pity forgotten as she stared at Orden in disbelief. “So you’re saying I deserved to be strangled?” Mia demanded, leaning her body as far away from Orden as she could get without toppling over.

“Of course not,” Orden said quickly, “what Vander did was wrong, but—”

“But? But what?”

“You did provoke him.”

The truth was an unwelcome reminder. “He was being an ass!” Mia’s voice cracked, and her throat burned.

“I am not saying any differently,” Orden tried for a placating look,“but Mia—”

“No!” Mia scrambled to her feet, “I can’t believe you’re taking his side. Again.”

“I am not taking sides,” said Orden, getting stiffly to his feet. His hands settled on his hips and he adopted a stern look, “Both of you were wrong today.”

“I didn’t almost kill him!”

“What do you think would have happened if he hadn’t blocked your attack?”

Mia stopped mid turn. The question was like a bucket of cold water down her back. What would have happened? She hadn’t stopped to consider. Just acted. Put all her anger and frustration behind that fiery attack and sent it flying at Vander... What would have happened if she’d hit her target?

Mia’s stomach plummeted sickeningly. “I—” She met Orden’s gaze.

Orden’s brow wrinkled, “You hadn’t thought about that, had you?” He asked, his voice low.

Mia closed her mouth, and shook her head.

Vander could have killed her today... but she could have just as easily done the same. An icy chill ran its clawed fingers along Mia’s spine as she realized that some terrible, alien part of her, had wanted to. No! That wasn’t her. That wasn’t who she was. Mia had wanted to hurt Vander, yes, that was true. She’d wanted to get him back for every jibe, dig and bruise he’d dealt her—she’d wanted to prove she wasn’t what he said she was—but kill him? No. Mia drew a shaky breath and stared at Orden, lost for words.

The lines on either side of Orden’s mouth deepened as he pressed his lips together. He rocked back on his heels, then forward, crossing the distance between them in a few long strides. He stopped at her side, placed a large, warm hand on Mia’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “We all do things in anger that we regret in the calm that follows. You alone are not to blame for today.”

A light breeze lifted a few strands of hair from Mia’s face and caressed her chilled skin. The rustling of thousands of leaves filled the clearing with a beautiful raucous. Mia’s hand drifted to her neck. “I changed my mind,” she said, meeting Orden’s eye, “I’d really like it if you would heal my neck. Please.”

An unreadable expression passed over Orden’s face as he looked at her. Mia didn’t know what he saw in her eyes, but whatever it was, it made him nod his head in agreement.

They sat across from one another in the grass, knees touching as Orden beckoned her to place her head in his hands. At the scrape of calluses against her jaw, Mia delivered one more request, “Do you think that maybe we can, like, maybe not tell Breahn or Hanna about this?”

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