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Corinne kept going until she found an empty room—a little side room that all the furniture had been dragged out of—and she closed herself in. She was shaking. She was freaking out. And she had no idea why.

Everything had been fine. Everything had been wonderful. Then…something had just happened…and suddenly it wasn’t.

A quiet knock on the door. “Corinne?”

Now Corinne was mortified. Lady Snow was out there. Lady Snow had noticed.

The door opened and Snow came in and Corinne had to turn away.

“I’m sorry,” Corinne said. “You don’t have to keep babysitting me.”

“I’m not babysitting.”

Which was nice of her to say, even if it wasn’t true. “That’s two parties in a row you’ve had to come look after me. How many before I’m kicked off the guest list?” She tried to make the question sound light, like a joke.

The silence from Lady Snow told her she’d failed.

Corinne heard the door open again and looked back to see Frost standing there. Another witness to Corinne’s humiliation. “Excuse me,” he said, his expression perfectly neutral. “Snow-más?”

Snow went to him and they whispered together for several minutes, then he bowed and withdrew. “Frost is going to inform Sun and Moon that you’re all right,” Snow said, closing the door to give them privacy once again.

“Am I all right? It doesn’t feel like it.”

Snow walked over to her, put a hand on Corinne’s shoulder. “These experiences can be intense. There’s nothing wrong with you.” She tilted her head, studying Corinne. She was an empath, Corinne remembered. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“I don’t even know what happened.”

“That’s all right too.”

Except it wasn’t all right, because what did Snow owe Corinne anyway? Twice now, Corinne had come to a party and ruined things. “You don’t have to be so nice to me.”

Snow ran her hand down Corinne’s arm and took her hand. Pulled her gently over to the wall, where Snow slid down to sit cross-legged on the floor, a position that should have looked ridiculous in her formal gown, except that it seemed physically impossible for Lady Snow to look anything but arrestingly perfect.

Corinne let herself be drawn down too, settled in with her back to the wall and her knees drawn up in front of her.

“Near the start of court, the Emperor threw a party,” Snow said. She wasn’t looking at Corinne, but they sat close enough for their shoulders to touch. “It was co-hosted by the Academy. They threw the barrier open so the entire court could attend and admire their beautiful gardens.”

“Yes.” Corinne remembered. “I was there.”

“You were. And you were bored out of your mind.”

Corinne looked over. Snow had been there? She remembered Corinne? Before Corinne had even attended her first party?

“One of the teachers—young, but he still should have known better—was pontificating about some magic business.” Snow waved her hand dismissively. “He’d drawn a crowd. Including a Swan lad who asked a question about something. I can’t remember what. But I remember the teacher couldn’t be bothered to answer. Was, in fact, quite rude to the boy. Said it wasn’t worth his time answering questions from anyone who lacked the gift to understand them.”

Corinne remembered that too, and she remembered her response.

“You got so angry. You were incandescent. The way you tore into that teacher. It was incredible.”

“My father—he lacks the gift—any gift—but he understands the akashic arts better than anyone in the Empire.”

“I know,” Snow said.

“But that’s the Dragon.” Corinne dropped her face against her knees. “Your entire worth defined by whether or not you’re an akashic, and then, how good of an akashic, and what you do with your gift. To be interested in anything else…”

“A waste of your time,” Snow murmured. “Worthless pursuits.”

A Dragon adept should be above such base interests. A Dragon adept should be better, purer. Should aspire to greater things.

Corinne raised her head, looked at Snow, who squeezed her fingers and gazed at her with tender affection. “What’s wrong with wanting this?” Corinne asked.

“Nothing.” Snow sounded very sure.

Corinne let her head fall back against the wall. “I do think that. I want to believe it. But for a moment, out there, everything just went…wrong.”

Snow let go Corinne’s hand and slid her arm around Corinne’s shoulders, pulling Corinne against her. “It’s all right.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m not.” Snow smiled, thawing something inside Corinne. “I’m happy to have met you, darling. Court may be ending, but I don’t think I’m ready for you to slip away.”

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Barbara J Webb

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