Hleo

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Chapter 23

I dropped down beside Ethan, close enough that I could get a good look at the drawing. It was my turn to be completely stunned.

“Your sister?” I breathed. “But how?”

“I don’t know.” He sounded as baffled as I felt.

How could I possibly have drawn a picture of his sister? She must have lived over a hundred years ago. I racked my brain, trying to visualize a history book of my father’s I might have flipped through and seen her in. There had been many over the years, but even still, she would have lived before photographs were common, and an action pose would have been very unlikely. If I’d seen a painted portrait, would I really have copied it? I was almost positive my images were my own creation, not forgeries of someone else’s work. None of my art teachers, who had a lot more art history knowledge than I did, had ever suggested otherwise. Plus, the images always looked like photographs in my mind, real people captured in moments of time, not paintings.

“I don’t understand.” I broke the silence as I glanced from the drawing to Ethan.

“Me neither.” His eyes were still on the image of his sister’s smiling face.

“Ethan, I don’t remember ever seeing a picture of her anywhere besides in my head. I know it’s possible I did and I just don’t remember but …”

He turned to look at me, his deep emerald eyes searching mine obviously for some hidden explanation that would help all of this make sense, but there wasn’t one. He dropped his gaze back to the picture. “Her name was Mary. She was eighteen years old at the time, and had just received this dress from her fiancé. He was a wealthy businessman from Boston, who fell in love with her while passing through our small town during his travels. He’d just asked our father’s permission for her hand in marriage. I was so happy for her; he was a good man and she was such a loving and caring person, she deserved the best.” Ethan had a far off look on his face, as though his mind had been transported back to the time of this memory.

“What happened?” I asked softly. From his tone I could tell that it probably wasn’t a happy ending.

“About a week after receiving this dress, she was killed.”

“No!” I pressed a hand to my mouth.

“I found her lying in a field of wildflowers similar to the one you’ve drawn here. She had been stabbed.” The hand holding the picture shook. He set the sketch back onto the hope chest, as though it was too difficult to look at any longer.

“I am so sorry,” I murmured, wanting to wrap my arms around him to comfort him, but not sure if that would be appropriate. I settled for placing my hand on his shoulder. I felt terrible. My drawing was causing him so much pain. Immediately I understood the sadness I had picked up on when I’d first met Ethan. To have a loved one taken too soon left a scar that never fully healed.

“Why would anyone want to hurt your sister?” I asked as gently as I could. I knew I probably shouldn’t talk about it anymore, but I was curious.

He didn’t answer right away.

“It’s okay. If it’s too painful, I get it.” I squeezed his shoulder. I still hated thinking about the day my mom had died, and now that I knew she’d been murdered, it only made it harder.

“It’s not that, it’s just, she was a protected.”

“Oh, was she one of the five that …?”

Ethan shook his head. “No.” For a moment I thought that was where he was going to leave it. As always, he seemed to be wrestling with how much he should be telling me, but I guess his desire to open up to someone won out.

“Mary was being protected by a man named Arthur Graydon.

Back then I knew him as the new neighbor that had bought the farm beside ours, but in reality he was a Hleo. He had been living next door for almost a year when a member of the Bana showed up, stabbed Arthur and left him to die in our barn, and then went after my sister. I found Arthur a few hours after I discovered Mary. He was as near death as a person can be but still alive, and he told me his story. He’d been sent to protect my sister because her existence played a part in The Metadas’ great plan for the future. He told me that he had failed her, and for that he was eternally sorry. Even in his dying moments, he cared more about my sister’s death than his own. I tried to revive him, and demanded to know who had done those terrible things.” Ethan stood up and walked over to stare out my window.

“He told me I should seek out a man by the name of Lucien Gossard for more answers. He gave me the gold ring that he wore on his finger, to prove to Lucien that he’d sent me, and then he died. I was thoroughly confused by everything he’d confessed, and I tried to dismiss it as the nonsense of a dying man and move on with my life.

“Two months went by and no one had been brought to justice for the crime against my sister. Anger burned inside of me. All I wanted was vengeance for the loss of her life. I wasn’t sure where to start, but I decided my only option was to track down Lucien Gossard and talk to him.

“My family was an immigrant farming family. We weren’t wealthy and we didn’t have any connections I could use, except for one: Stanley Marsden, my sister’s fiancé. He was as distraught over Mary’s death as I was, and consumed with the same desire for justice.” Ethan turned to look at me as he ran his fingers through his dark hair.

“Together, using his wealth and power, we tracked down Lucien Gossard, which was not an easy task. For all worldly purposes, Lucien Gossard did not exist. He was a shadow, a ghost, and he had lived that way for many years. Our search for him led Stanley and me down paths we could never have dreamed of, on a cross-continental journey, in a time before airplanes or cars. Neither of us was sure what to expect when Lucien finally met with us. When he realized we had been searching for him, he confronted us, demanding to know why. At first he was hostile towards us. Stanley and I feared he would refuse to provide us with any information, but after I presented Lucien with Arthur’s ring his attitude softened.

“Lucien had been Arthur Graydon’s mentor, the one who had trained Arthur in the ways of the Hleo. He was the one who had prepared him for the task of protecting people with ‘exceptional destinies’ as Lucien put it. He explained to us who the society of the Hleo were, and their long history of acting as guardians of destiny. Then he explained who the Bana were, and why being a Hleo was such an important responsibility.

“Stanley and I were dumbfounded. Who could have believed such things existed in this world? And yet the proof was right before us. Lucien explained that Mary’s killer would be dealt with by a Hleo, once he had been located. Lucien knew who the person was, but wouldn’t tell us. He said it was their duty to destroy the man, and that only a Hleo could handle such a job.

“Stanley managed to find peace with that answer. As long as someone dealt with the murderer he could rest, but I couldn’t. I’d traveled a long way to see the man who had taken my sister’s life brought to justice, and as awful as this may sound to you, I wanted to be the one to kill him.” Ethan took a step towards my bed, his fists clenched. My stomach lurched, and I pulled my knees up to my chest. Am I safe with this guy?

“Stanley and I parted ways at that point. He had a business and a life to return to, and we’d already devoted several months to finding Lucien. Lucien swore him to secrecy and then Stanley left, headed back to his life in Boston, while I stayed. I wanted to understand more, and be around Lucien in case any information about Mary’s killer surfaced.

“At first I was a nuisance to him; I knew it, but I wouldn’t leave, and he couldn’t shake me. I think it was my persistence, or perhaps my ability to always find him when he tried to lose me, that finally softened him. After a few months of having me at his side, he told me that there was only one way he would reveal to me who my sister’s murderer was: if I chose to leave the world I knew to become a Hleo. He said it was a commitment that I needed to understand was complete and final. It would mean sacrificing my relationships with everyone I knew and, in all likelihood, eventually sacrificing my own life to the cause.

“After the time I’d spent with Lucien, I had begun to understand what it meant to live the life of a Hleo. I had no real connections back home other than my parents, and it took me only a moment to make my decision. I had already been away from home for over a year, and although I knew the pain I would cause my parents, thinking they had lost their only living child, I had to do this. I was a man obsessed. I was so close to facing Mary’s killer.” Ethan sank back down on the bed beside me; further down than he had sat before, as if he wasn’t sure how close I would want him to get after all he’d just shared.

“There are very strict guidelines for someone to become a Hleo, in order to protect the society and their principles. A candidate must first be seen by Victor in the Metadas room. When Lucien submitted my name to them, their first response was to reject me. Victor had no knowledge of me, and they would never take someone who hadn’t been called to that life. They also cited that I was far too young to take on such a great responsibility. That I couldn’t fully understand the decision I was making. I was almost ten years younger than the youngest member of the Hleo at that time, and it was unheard of for someone my age to even know about the society, let alone be part of it. Then, not long after I had been turned down, Victor had his turn in the room. When he came out he deemed that I should become a Hleo. Within a month, just days before my twenty-second birthday, I went through the branding ceremony and stepped into my new life. Six months later, Mary’s killer was dead.” Ethan’s shoulders slumped, as though the weight of what he had done pressed down on him.

I sat frozen on my bed. I couldn’t comprehend everything he had told me. He’d abandoned his life to track down and kill his sister’s murderer. I was horrified, and hugged my knees tighter. Fear of who Ethan was and what he was capable of rippled through me. For several minutes neither of us moved. I studied his profile. Sorrow and regret grooved deep lines across his face, and my muscles slowly relaxed. I straightened up, my body inching closer to Ethan, before my brain had even agreed to the idea. The pain he had gone through, I could understand it, now more than ever since I’d found out the truth about my mom. Ethan would never hurt you. The realization surprised me, especially after his distressing personal confession, but somehow I knew it was true, and that knowledge made me feel more connected to him than ever.

“Wow,” I finally said. It sounded silly, and completely inadequate after what he’d told me, but it was all that would come out.

“I probably shouldn’t have shared any of that with you, but …” Ethan’s eyes locked with mine, “… I wanted to.”

My mouth went dry. “Thank you. It means a lot that you would open up about your past with me.”

His gaze fell to my lips and he leaned in closer to me on the bed, his shoulder lightly brushing mine. My heart hammered in my chest, but then he stood and strode over to the door.

“Discovering this drawing changes things. I know you probably have a lot more questions, but I need to think this through a little and talk to The Three. Can we call it a night, maybe get that pizza you mentioned?”

Pizza? Way to ruin to mood, Ethan. If there was a mood. Why did he have to be so hard to read?

“Sure.” I blew out a long breath, trying to shove away my disappointment. Clearly I had misread his signals. I glanced out the window; it felt darker outside than an average night. The moon must be hidden behind thick clouds. A shiver at the sudden feeling of isolation moved through me. If Ethan hadn’t been there, waiting for me in the doorway, I would have been truly nervous, but looking over at him, I smiled.

For tonight, I felt safe here, with him. I pushed away the chilling thought that after he talked to The Three about the fact that I had drawn his sister, a protected who had lived a hundred years ago and then been murdered, all of that could change.

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