Phoenix sighed heavily as Maya closed the door to her sleeping quarters, leaving him outside in the sitting room. He leaned against the door and rubbed at his eyes, fatigued. It had been a long day.
She’d requested a moment alone to fix her hair and freshen up but Phoenix knew that what she was really asking for was to take a few moments to regain her composure. Althea has been particularly harsh at that afternoons meeting. He’d had managed to get her out of the council chambers and lead her back to the main house, but the defiant spark she had displayed earlier that morning seemed to be gone.
Maya seemed numb. Lifeless. He hated seeing her like that. The added stress of Lillian’s funeral tomorrow certainly wasn’t going to help either.
Phoenix frowned and cursed under his breath. There were so many new questions. Kurain had so many secrets. So much betrayal. He found it hard to believe someone as wonderful and pure as Maya came from such a place. She didn’t belong here. She belonged someplace far away. Someplace with him. Free of ridiculous responsibilities, free of the hurt. He wanted nothing more than to turn around, open the door behind him and take her away for good.
But he knew she wouldn’t allow it. She may be having trouble coping right now, but he knew Maya was strong and proud of her village. She wanted to make it a better place.
It was just like Iris had told him. She didn’t need someone to protect her right now.
She just needed someone to understand.
Maya walked slowly across her room towards the bathroom. She was tired, angry, hurt, stressed… But she had to keep moving, even if she was just going through the motions. She reached the small ensuite and stood over the sink, bracing her hands on either side. She glanced up at her reflection in the mirror. Tired eyes looked back at her with an almost cynical edge.“You’re not fooling anyone.”
Her reflection told her. “You’re just a kid pretending to play grown up games.”
She closed her eyes and sighed. Who was she kidding? She couldn’t run Kurain. She didn’t know its history. She didn’t even know anything about her father. Turning on the tap, she splashed some cold water on her face. Her thoughts turned to Phoenix, no doubt sitting outside the door worrying about her.
Sweet, protective, reliable Nick.
She picked up a brush and began to run it through the long, silky strands that she had been left free of the elaborate knot her hair had been styled into. Despite her sullen mood, the corner of her mouth turned upwards in a faint smile as she thought about the lawyer outside her door. He always had that effect on her.
He didn’t need to be here, but he was. He was here for her. Standing up to Althea this afternoon had been easy. Simply because she knew he was right next to her. She knew it wasn’t just her either – Phoenix had an uncanny ability to lift the all the people around him. Everyone had felt it at some stage. He was inspiring. His enthusiasm was infectious. And she felt bad for relying on it.
Gently, she placed the brush down on the sink and headed back to her bed. Sitting down her thoughts moved to a particular topic that she had been avoiding.
She was falling in love with him.
Maya couldn’t remember a time when she didn’t at least feel something for Phoenix. She remembered fondly how this kind, handsome man came into her life when all hope was lost and did everything he could to save her. And he continued to save her. Over, and over and over. How could she not fall for someone like that? She had always thought it would never be anything more than an unrequited crush. But now, things were different.
Maya knew Phoenix had feelings for her that went beyond that of just friendship, and the thought of that made her cheeks flush and her heart pound in her chest. But at the same time, it made her sad.
“Nothing lasts forever...”She whispered softly.
The words were painful to say. She knew that Kurain would need her one day, and she would have to leave him. He didn’t belong here in Kurain and she had no right to even try to keep him here. He needed to be in the city, helping people, winning cases. She needed to be here, leading her people and making Kurain a better place. If things continued on how they were going, she knew she would hurt him when the inevitable time came that she had to leave.
Right now she felt like she needed him, like she couldn’t do anything without him. Maya knew it was wrong to feel that way. His purpose in life wasn’t to support her. She was holding him back.
Tying him down in any way would be...
“Selfish.” She whispered to herself.
Wiping away the tears that had started to fall, Maya made her decision.
As much as it hurt to do so, she needed to put some distance between herself and Phoenix. If things didn’t change, in time she knew he would fall in love with her and she couldn’t bear the thought of breaking his heart. If they went back to being friends now, maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much.
What Maya didn’t realise was that it was already far too late for that.
Andre looked up at the deep purple sky that had seemingly draped itself like a blanket over the picturesque little garden. The sky was clear and thousands of stars twinkled down at him happily, almost as if they didn’t know about the sinister plans he was there to discuss.
“You’re early,” said a familiar voice from behind him.
Andre spun around to find Althea standing behind him, arms crossed and expression firm. He glanced down at his watch, stifling the urge to tell her that she was in fact, late. He simply nodded instead.
“Does anyone know you are here?” Althea asked. Andre shook his head to signify no. “Good.” She said with a curt nod.
The pair walked in silence towards an old stone bench and took a seat. The bench was out of view of all the main paths and was hidden behind two large trees. They could speak freely there without being heard.
“I assume you’re working with Morgan.” Althea stated.
“How... how did you know that?” Andre stammered. He had been so careful!
“Please.” Althea said icily. “I know that woman better than anyone. I’m surprised she didn’t come to me herself.”
Andre frowned. He had originally planned to only give Althea tidbits of information in order to keep the upper hand for himself. Unfortunately it appeared he didn’t have that luxury.
“Am I also correct in assuming that manipulating me was part of her plan?” Althea said, breaking the silence with a difficult question. Andre hung his head. He should have known she would figure that out.
“Yes.” He said quietly. He looked over at Althea, studying her expression for a reaction. To his surprise she nodded approvingly.
“Quite a good avenue to approach from. I see that Morgan has really planned this one well.” Althea said. “So what is her next step? Once you have me on side, where to then?”
“I actually have no idea.” Andre admitted. “She feeds me portions of the plan, one step at a time. She thinks I’ll be less likely to screw up that way.”
Althea looked over at Andre, her expression compassionate. She sighed.
“Well it’s certainly just like Morgan to keep her cards close to her chest. But a mother needs to have more faith in her son.” Althea said softly.
Andre smirked and shook his head.
“I should have known that you knew she was my mother.” He said.
“Well I’ll just warn you that I’m not the only one. That damn lawyer knows it too and nearly told the whole council today.” Althea said, annoyed. Andre’s eyes widened.
“He did? I mean, I knew he thought he knew, but...” Andre trailed off.
“Your father admitted as much to Mia, or so he told me when I asked him about it. Mia no doubt told Mr Wright. The lawyer is a problem and he needs to be taken care of.” Althea snapped.
A gentle rustling noise came from a bush behind Andre. Snapping his head around to locate the source of the noise, he relaxed when he saw a small squirrel dart up the tree next to where he and Althea sat.
“If we get rid of Maya, he will no longer be a problem. He will go where she does.” Andre reasoned.
“Yes, but how DO we get rid of Maya, Andre? How?” Althea asked. “Morgan hasn’t told you that part yet, has she?”
Andre shook his head.
“Can’t the council just stand her down?” he asked. Althea scoffed, shaking her head.
“If it were within my capacity I would have done it by now. Unfortunately for me she had the rest of the council eating out of her hand at that damn meeting this afternoon, so even if we could bring it to a vote right now I would be out numbered.”
“Well, we need to find out what mother has planned.” Andre said with a sigh. “You know she will have planned this from start to finish, so she obviously has something in mind.”
Althea thought for a moment... then it hit her.
“We may not need to...” she said slowly, her lips spreading into a satisfied grin. “I’ll need to do some research first though, just to make sure. Proceed with whatever Morgan tells you to do for now. And don’t tell her you spoke to me. She’ll want to reformulate the plan if you tell her that I know about anything that’s going on.”
Andre nodded. That sounded like his mother, alright.
“I’ll take care of things from my end and I’ll meet with you again once I have all my information.” Althea said as she stood. Andre stood also.
She moved to leave, but turned back around to face Andre.
“I have one more question.” She said, raising an eyebrow. “Did you kill Lillian?”
Andre steeled his expression. There was no use lying about it now.
“Yes.” He said simply. Althea’s face remained unchanged.
“We’ll keep that between you and me.” She said, patting the boy on the shoulder. “We’ve all done questionable things for the good of the village. Lillian died for a noble cause.”
Andre nodded, his eyes showing no emotion, despite the fact that Althea’s admission had surprised him.
With no more to be said, the pair turned and walked in opposite directions, leaving the garden in silence, as if their little exchange had never taken place at all.
Once they were out of sight, the rustling from the bushes behind Andre grew louder, as a little girl pulled herself to her feet. Tears streaming down her face, she ran as fast as her little legs would take her towards the Master’s quarters.
Finally back in her quarters after a lengthy dinner with Council members and other prominent members of Kurain Village, Maya yawned and began to pull the pins out of her hair, placing them atop her dresser. Phoenix sat on a chair close by watching her movements.
The food they ate for dinner had been lovely, but that had been the extent of his enjoyment. Maya was quiet and distracted during the meal, barely speaking to him and Althea had spent the entire time glaring at him. Andre, however, was thankfully not present. He hadn’t even been able to see Pearl yet. She had been delegated to the children’s’ dining area, which was in a separate room to where the adults ate.
“Maya...” Phoenix said softly. “Are you alright? I...I know you’ve been through a lot today, and you were so quiet at dinner...”
“I’m fine.” Maya said quietly, her voice lacking any real emotion. She didn’t turn to face him, but continued to watch her own reflection as she undid her hair.
Phoenix stood and moved behind her, placing his hands on her shoulders. Her eyes met his in the reflection of the mirror and she couldn’t help but sigh. Looking away, she turned to face him. He shifted his hands so they remained on her shoulders. His gaze was serious as he looked down at her.
She smiled sadly and placed her hands over his, gently lifting his hands from her shoulders and holding them in her own. She gave them a quick squeeze before letting go. A little surprised, Phoenix let his hands drop to his sides.
“Nick...” Maya began.
He said nothing, just watched her, waiting for her next words.
She stopped again. Biting down on her lip, she tried to hold back the tears she could feel stinging the corners of her eyes.“This is so hard.”
She thought to herself. She felt sick to her stomach. Her hands were shaking. She took a deep breath. Was she really about to tell Phoenix that she thought he should go back home?
Suddenly there was a loud bang on the door, accompanied by the sound of a crying child.
“Mystic Maya! Mystic Maaaayyyaaaa!!” the voice wailed.
Maya and Phoenix both froze, looking at each other in shock.
“Pearls!” Phoenix muttered in recognition, panic setting in as he rushed to the door to open it. Sliding the door open, he was greeted by the sight of a very distraught Pearl Fey. Her knee was grazed and bleeding and tears streamed down her angelic little face.
“Mr Nick!” she cried, as Phoenix scooped her up into his arms. He closed the door and carried the young medium over to where Maya stood. She continued to cry, burying her head in Phoenix’s shoulder.
“Pearly, what is it, what’s wrong?” Maya asked gently, stroking the little girls’ hair.
Slowly, she lifted her head, her grief stricken face almost breaking Maya’s heart.
“I heard them. I heard them talking.” She said, between sobs.
“Heard who, Pearls?” Phoenix asked. Pearl didn’t respond. Maya dashed quickly to the bathroom, wetting down a small cloth to wipe Pearl’s grazed knee.
“What happened to your knee Pearly?” Maya asked, gently cleaning the wound. “Did you fall?”
Pearl looked up again. She sniffed and nodded.
“I was in the garden.” She said quietly.
“You know you shouldn’t be in the garden after dark Pearly. It’s dangerous.” Maya chided softly.
“I’m sorry, Mystic Maya.” Pearl sobbed. “I stayed too long at the dinner hall and I was running late for evening meditation. I took a shortcut through the garden, but it got dark so quick.” She explained.
“Who did you see there, Pearls? Who was talking?” Phoenix asked again. Pearl looked up at him with a devastated expression.
“I saw Andre. I tried to run over to him so he would help me find my way out of the garden, but I fell. That’s when I heard them.” Pearl said sadly.
“Who else was there?” Phoenix asked gently. Pearl was clearly very upset and extracting information wasn’t exactly easy considering he didn’t want to upset her more.
“Mystic Althea was there.” Pearl said, stifling a sob. “They were talking about getting rid of Mystic Maya!”
Pearl began to wail again as Phoenix patted her back protectively. He looked over at Maya, his frown full of concern. Maya shook her head. She should have seen this coming.
“Shhhh,” Phoenix soothed, moving over to Maya’s sitting area. He sat on the small couch, settling Pearl in his lap. “It’s okay. We won’t let them get rid of Mystic Maya. Mystic Maya is in charge now, you know that. Everything will be just fine.”
Maya stood, and began pacing a little. She rubbed at her forehead. A stress headache was starting to set in. Phoenix watched her worriedly as he continued to try and console the little girl on his lap.
“Mr Nick?” Pearl croaked, looking up at him.
“Yes sweetie,” he answered concern evident in his voice. Pearl paused, a frown marring her petite features.
“Andre is a bad person, isn’t he?”
Maya’s head snapped up. She met Phoenix’s puzzled gaze.
“What makes you think that, Pearls?” Phoenix asked her, feigning ignorance.
She shifted slightly, sniffling a little more and wiped at her eyes with the back of her fist.
“Mystic Althea asked him if he killed Mystic Lillian.” Pearl managed to whisper quietly. Phoenix was taken aback.
“And what did he say?”
“He said he did.”
Phoenix hugged Pearl tightly as she began to cry again. He stroked her hair, feeling absolutely at a loss for what to say to this poor child who had just had her faith in humanity almost completely destroyed. First it was her mother, and now this.
“I knew Mystic Mia wasn’t bad. I knew it. Andre lied to me.” Pearl said through her tears, her voice muffled by Phoenix’s shoulder.
Maya watched Phoenix continue to hush and soothe the poor child, rocking her back and forth while he told her everything was going to be okay and that nobody was going to hurt anyone.
“The lies we tell children...”
Maya thought hopelessly to herself. This was all just too much. Her whole body was shaking with the effort of just preventing a complete emotional breakdown. She couldn’t take it anymore.
Turning abruptly, Maya dashed from the room, leaving Phoenix behind. He frowned and cursed silently. He couldn’t go after her right now – there was no way he was leaving frightened little Pearl. She continued to sob lightly into his shoulder, but she seemed to be calming down.
He squeezed his eyes shut; sighing with exasperation at the mess they had once again found themselves in.
“Why does it always have to be this way?”
Phoenix looked down at the sleeping child he had just covered with a blanket. She looked so peaceful. Like she didn’t have a care in the world. But when she woke up again the weight of her problems would no doubt once again crush her tiny spirit. Pearl was like a daughter to him, and he wanted to hurt anyone that hurt her. The little couch was more than enough room for her to sleep on, so he decided against moving her very far once she had fallen asleep in his lap. But now that she was settled, he had to go and find Maya.
Just as he turned to leave the room, the door slid open, and Maya stepped inside. Her eyes were red and puffy. Phoenix knew immediately that she had been crying. The tired expression on her face matched his own. He didn’t need to ask her if she was okay. It was plain as day that she wasn’t, and quite frankly, neither was he.
He stretched out his arm, offering her his hand. She looked at it, an odd expression on her face, then back up at him again. After a few moments more of hesitation she moved towards him and took the hand he offered. He pulled her over to him and enveloped her in a tight hug and she allowed herself to be held.
She didn’t cry. She was all cried out. Just exhausted. He reached over to the side table next to where Pearl slept and switched off the lamp. Light from Maya’s bedroom filtered out into the small sitting room.
Maya took a deep breath, doing her best to commit his scent to memory, while she fought with her inner turmoil about sending him away.“Not tonight.”
She argued with herself. “I need him here tonight. Just one more night.”
Her shoulders slumped, and she leaned into him. He was keeping her on her feet, both physically and emotionally. Sensing that she was near her breaking point, Phoenix scooped her up and carried her into her bedroom. Gently, he laid her down on the bed, taking his place by her side. They were both too tired to change. She would sleep in her fancy kimono and he in his suit. He pulled her into his arms.
Brushing her bangs out of her eyes, he kissed her forehead and whispered.
“It’s okay. I’m here.”
The words stung, even though they were intended as soothing. Maya fought back tears as she replied, her voice barely a whisper.