Javier Byrd, the famous musician Serafina had never heard of, was handsome and friendly and very, very pale. Serafina could feel the disease inside him like a toxic cloud. Soon it would be inside of her. She trembled as she took the hand he held out to her. Tears sprang to her eyes.
“Oi, I’m not that scary, am I?” Javier teased in a strong British accent. He bent his head to catch Serafina’s lowered eyes. “How old are you, luv?”
“Nine,” Serafina whispered, taking her hand back and clasping it in the other tightly.
“I have a niece around your age.” His smile was tired and there was a fine sheen of sweat along his hairline. “Her name is Zoe.”
“That’s nice,” Serafina said politely, tugging her hand away from his. It tingled painfully.
“She likes unicorns. I thought you might too.” One hand gestured weakly and a burly man in a dark suit stepped forward with a paper shopping bag.
A present? For her? Serafina’s heart skipped a beat despite her discomfort. It wasn’t unusual for visitors to bring gifts but they were always for the Church. Expensive decorations for the chapel or rare plants for the greenhouse. Sometimes bottles of expensive spirits for the Elders to share when they were alone, because Church members were not supposed to drink alcohol.
“How thoughtful,” Elder Vera said politely, stepping forward to take the bag. Anything anyone outside the Church gave her had to be vetted by the elders before it reached her hands. “Serafina can open it this evening.”
Javier directed a tired, but very charming smile in Elder Vera’s direction. “But I won’t be there to enjoy it.”
Elder Brandon started to protest, but Elder Vera melted. “Fine.” The older woman opened the bag and held it out for Serafina to reach inside. “But don’t let it distract you from your lessons.”
To Javier, the warning in Elder Vera’s tone probably sounded like the concern of a responsible guardian for her charge’s education. Serafina knew better. Everyone in the room except the musician and his entourage knew she wouldn’t be having lessons after the treatment. She’d be too ill. Elder Vera had picked up on Serafina’s excitement and was warning her not to get too attached to her gift. There was a better-than-good chance she wouldn’t be keeping it.
Serafina stole a look at Ian as she reached into the bag. The white stuffed unicorn had hard blue eyes and a twisted pastel rainbow horn. The white plush sparkled with glitter and its rainbow mane and tail were shot with glittering silver strands.
It’s cute, came Ian’s voice. Serafina nodded, her eyes on the unicorn in her hands. She’d seen dolls and stuffed animals in store windows and other children’s arms, but she’d never held one before. It was soft and cuddly and she brought it close to her without thinking. A quiet hiss from Elder Vera had Serafina thrusting it away from her chest.
“You like it, luv?” Javier prompted with a smile, but the words came out on a groan. He was very sick. Serafina swallowed hard and nodded.
“Yes. Thank you.”
Javier’s eyes sparkled. The people who paid the Church a small fortune for a healing miracle weren’t told how it affected the healer. Sometimes Serafina wondered if they even asked, or just imagined some holy spell or divine beam of light magically cured them without consequences. It just goes to show desperate people would believe anything. And as far as they knew, they were right.
Elder Brandon cleared his throat. “Are you ready to begin?”
Serafina’s heart pounded as Javier nodded. His wheelchair was already positioned in front of the window, next to the padded armchair Serafina had grown to hate. The Elders had chosen the sitting room behind the chapel stage for healing treatments for the view of the ocean and because it was far from the noise and bustle of the offices and common areas of the Church.
The woman who had come with Javier kissed him tearfully and a man gripped the musician’s shoulder hard before Elder Vera ushered everyone out of the room.
“Ian!” said Elder Vera sharply when he didn’t move. Serafina bit her lip against a sob as Ian reluctantly followed, holding her gaze over his shoulder until he disppeared out the door.
“Serafina,” Elder Brandon prompted, gesturing to the padded chair.
She knew better than to drag her feet or appear less than composed as she took her place. The White Goddess did not begrudge her sacrifices to those in suffering. She didn’t allow human weakness to divert her from her divine purpose—to serve her believers and fulfill the prophecies. God, it’s such bullshit. Even spoken silently, the bad word gave Serafina a tiny burst of rebellious satisfaction. The White Goddess didn’t use foul language, either.
She didn’t realize she was clutching the unicorn in her lap until Elder Brandon reached his hand out for it. “I’ll take that.”
Javier looked at him strangely. “Why can’t she keep it?”
Elder Brandon pressed his lips together. To Church outsiders, the White Goddess was part legend, part saint, like Catholics prayed to. They didn’t know the White Goddess was a real live person, much less a nine year-old girl. An unbeliever wouldn’t understand what the Elders were doing and why. They wouldn’t understand why Serafina wasn’t allowed dolls or stuffed animals or anything she could get emotionally attached to, including people. As her Guardian, Ian was the exception. The Elders regarded her attachment to him as a necessary evil.
“She can, of course.” Elder Brandon didn’t look at Serafina. He was frustrated and trying not to show it. “The pager is on the table if you need something. Otherwise I’ll be back in an hour.”
The door clicked shut behind him. “Alone at last,” Javier joked. He flashed Serafina a weak smile. “Bit of a wanker, isn’t he?”
Serafina perked up in spite of the dread curling through her. “Is that a bad word? Wanker?”
Javier winced. “Maybe you shouldn’t repeat that.”
“So yes.” Serafina nodded thoughtfully “Wanker,” she repeated, filing the bad word away with the others.
Javier shakes his head. “Please don’t go calling Elder—er, Brandon a wanker,” he begged. “At least not until after I leave.”
He winked at her broadly and Serafina smiled. Javier was nice. That made it a little bit easier. Closing her eyes for a moment, she let out a long breath. It was time. Bracing herself for the pain, Serafina held out her hand. “Are you ready?”
His grip was weak and his fingers were dry and bony. Not the creepiest stranger’s hand Serafina had ever held. The pins and needles were stabbing harder this time and she felt a dank, fetid warmth spreading through her as Javier wrapped his hand around her much smaller one.
She could see what the Elders were worried about with the emotional attachment. Just holding the unicorn in her lap made Serafina feel better, not so alone. They stared out the window together in silence until Serafina passed out. She was still unconscious and Javier was still holding her hand when Elder Brandon came back at the end of the hour.
“I’m healed, mate!” Javier declared to his friend walking into the room behind the Elder. The woman who had kissed him earlier burst into happy tears and flung her arms around him.
“Glad you’re in good spirits, but I’ll reserve judgment until the bloodwork comes back,” his friend said.
“Fair.” Javier turned to Ian, gently lifting a limp Serafina from her chair. “Is she all right?”
Javier blinked at the flash of fury in his eyes before the youth shuttered his expression. Ian curled his arms around Serafina and brought her to his chest. Her head lolled against his bicep, half covered by springy blond curls. Dark shadows were already forming like bruises under her eyes. He took the stuffed unicorn from her loose grip and tucked it safely against his chest.
“She’ll be fine,” Ian said shortly. He would make sure of it.
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