There was a rustle of branches behind her, “That took longer than I’d expected.”
Mia twisted around at the sound of Orden’s voice, catching sight of him as he ducked beneath a low hanging branch and stepped into the clearing. His lips twitched in amusement.
Mia looked back toward the spot where Vander had disappeared, then back at Orden. “You were watching the whole time.” It wasn’t a question.
“Did he know?”
Orden lowered his head in affirmation, his expression sobering as he picked up the flinty edge in Mia’s tone.
“What the hell is going on here?” Mia demanded through teeth clenched so hard, her jaw ached.
Orden’s mouth turned down, “What do you mean?”
“He’s back all of five seconds and suddenly you start treating me like I don’t matter?” Mia’s hand flew as she pointed it first at the trees behind her and then at Orden, before she slammed it into her own chest.
“Mia,” Orden’s brows shot up in the vicinity of his long absent hairline. He dared to ask, “What are you talking about? When—”
“Yesterday!” Mia shouted her voice cracking on the last syllable, “Yesterday Orden. You wouldn’t even listen to me. You just took his side—didn’t even think about it!”
Understanding flashed in Orden’s eyes at the same time as a look of stony anger slammed down on his features. In a voice like stone grinding against stone Orden said, “It wasn’t Vander who broke the commandment.”
“Right!” Mia exclaimed, jabbing a finger at Orden, “I broke the stupid rule—by accident—and you punished me for it. And now, you want me to train with the person who got me in trouble in the first place! I mean—” Her arms dropped to her sides at a loss. “Is this some kind of joke, or are you just screwing with me?”
Orden blinked, his stoney mask disintegrating into bewilderment. Then his expression cleared, the deep lines erased as he shook the confusion off. “Let us be clear—” Orden growled, “Vander is not the reason you were punished—you have no one but yourself to blame for that.”
“You wouldn’t know though.” Mia countered, her nails digging deeper into the palms of her hands, “You never bothered to hear my side of the story.”
“Did Vander neglect to share some key detail?” Orden asked, his tone and his implied meaning grating on Mia’s nerves.
“He made it sound like I was waiting for him.”
“Were you not?”
“No!” Mia exploded, “I had no idea it was him.”
“And who exactly did you think was capable of passing through the ward? Who did you think knew the exact direction of the homestead?”
“I didn’t know!” Any more of this and Mia thought she might resort to pulling her hair out in clumps. He was so clearly unconvinced by her story. “That’s why I climbed the tree.”
“It didn’t cross your mind to return home and alert someone?”
Of course it did, you infuriating old man! “Look,” Mia said, willing herself to be calm even as her temper flared, “I’m not saying that I made the right decision. Obviously I know that. All I’m trying to say is that I didn’t break the commandment on purpose. Seriously, do you think I meant to fall out of that tree?” Mia hated that she was breathing so hard. The sun felt like a branding iron on the top of her head, her shoulders; the air, thick with humidity caught in her throat, suffocating her.
Orden stared at her, considering everything she’d said. Finally he released a long breath and said, “No. I suppose not.”
“Thank you!” Mia exclaimed with a sharp gesture of her hand.
Orden frowned as he looked at her, really looked at her, perhaps seeing for the first time how truly upset she was about the whole situation. His frown eased, the hard set of his face softening. Orden sighed, and, running a hand over his head said, “I was not choosing sides yesterday.”
Mia watched in silence as Orden sat on the edge of the stump they used in her lessons, the very stump she had been attempting to keep in the air when she’d had enough and stormed off into the woods. One could say it was all the stump’s fault.
Orden continued, “I had much to discuss with Vander, and I admit—” he squinted up at her, “it was easier done without you present.”
“So you sent me to muck out the stalls?” And made me look like a child in front of that prick. Mia’s anger felt like a hot stone in her gut.
Orden shook his head but he was smiling. Barely. “You must understand,” He said, “this has never happened before. The others, they never—well,” He looked at her again, this time with something Mia couldn’t read in his pale eyes, “they weren’t you.” There was a lot of weight in that simple statement, it seemed to encompass so much more than this incident. Mia wasn’t sure whether to be offended or to feel guilty. “I admit, I did not know how to proceed.”
“It’s fine,” Mia said, and sighed, her anger snuffed out.
“I apologize if my actions yesterday seemed a betrayal—” Mia’s mouth popped open as his words hit home, striking her true feelings on the head, “that was not my intention.” He looked at her from beneath salt and pepper brows, “For what it is worth, I do believe you.”
Not trusting herself to speak, Mia closed her mouth and nodded. A silent acceptance of his apology. And because it felt awkward to stay standing in front of him, Mia joined Orden on the stump, fitting herself onto the sliver of space that remained. She felt the warmth of his body where their arms touched and found herself leaning into it with a tired sigh. Orden, to her relief, did not pull away but welcomed the contact. He believed her. “Thank you,” Mia murmured as the first lick of a cool breeze stirred her hair and played through the full, green leafed trees all around them.
“So… Vander—” Mia trailed off, not knowing how to continue, “he’s—” Brutal. Mean. “different.”
Orden snorted with a force that had his entire body moving next to hers. “Is that really the word you would choose?”
Mia smirked, “No, but I didn’t want to offend you.”
Orden released an amused puff of air, and took a deep, sobering breath, “Different, yes—and dangerous.” He twisted his neck to look at Mia, “You would do well not to test him.”
Mia raised her brows, “What, and let him walk all over me?”
“He is not in control.” Mia went still. “His temper runs hot- yes, even hotter than mine—and he can be—volatile—in this form.”
In this form? And then Mia remembered who and what Vander was. A Dragon. A living, breathing dragon; a creature straight out of every book worth reading, every movie worth watching. He was capable of—God knew what—breathing fire for one thing. That might make her think twice. Then again… Mia had never seen a dragon before…
Schooling her face into a grave expression Mia hoped would hide the turn of her thoughts, Mia asked, “Do you think he would hurt me?”
Orden looked at her, all seriousness, “I don’t know.”
That gave her pause—made her think. And made her question, If he’s so fricken dangerous then why let him train me? Mia huffed a sigh and stared at the grass between the rounded toes of her boots.
“You are wondering why I have asked Vander to train you.”
She didn’t bother to ask how he knew what she was thinking, just nodded.
“It is a matter of convenience. With Vander taking over your weapons training, we will be left with more time to develop your Power. And—” Orden leaned into Mia a bit, lowering his voice. “Though I hate to admit it, I am growing weary. I am not as young as I once was.”
The admission caught her off guard. That Orden would even tell her this meant a great deal. He who never showed any weakness, confiding in her.
“You could have fooled me,” Mia said lightly, thinking about all the times Orden had kicked her ass in the past month.
Orden shrugged, “I don’t think I’m fooling anyone anymore. Especially myself. I’m old Mia. It’s time I accept that.”
A robin called for its mate somewhere in the trees behind them. The melancholy sound had Mia pushing herself off the stump. She turned toward Orden, both hands planted on her hips.
“Get up old man.” Mia ordered, “I’m going to try to lift that thing and I don’t need your heavy sack of bones weighing it down.”
Orden frowned ferociously, looking for all the world like a grumpy old bear. “Careful girl,” He warned, his voice deep and gravelly. Mia pressed her lips together to keep from smiling as she noted the slight lift at the corner of Orden’s mouth. There was a grateful gleam in those pale eyes as he stood and crossed his arms over his massive chest.
Mia concentrated on the innocent looking stump in front of her, already gritting her teeth against the coming pain as she reached for her Power. How ‘bout we set a new record?