ETA: I have no idea why there are tabs in my version of the post, but none for anyone else trying to read this. I am sorry about that.
There was a clink and a sound of brushing of cloth, followed by “You moron!”
Taro winced. That sounded bad. Like a delay. He hated delays. Life was progressing slowly enough as it was. And time slowed more with each Matching he went to, until the hours before the event stretched him almost to screaming. He didn’t need Stevan - and it was Stevan - throwing some self-entitled fit and holding up the proceedings.
The depressingly spare holding room with its bare wooden floor and blank wooden walls had one luxury. A jug of wine and a goblet for each of them. To keep them calm, as Zaire knew they’d fall into hysterics at the drift of a leaf. He’d never thought alcohol and nervous tension were a particularly good mix, and the wine smelled watery and sour, so he wasn’t touching it.
Stevan and Sebastion had chosen to indulge, and apparently the jug had been knocked over. The older Source was glaring down at Sebastion, but that didn’t mean Sebastion was responsible for the spill. Stevan had a habit of blaming others when things didn’t go his way.
Taro saw the tiny dribble of red liquid forming at the hem of Stevan’s black robes and snickered. This caused Stevan’s glare to transfer over to him.
Ooh, his boots were ice, now.
“I’ll be going to the Match reeking of wine!” Stevan shouted, raising a fist.
Sebastian’s sister, Viola, stepped between the two men. “Don’t you even think it,” she warned him, and it was the first time she’d been without a smile since Taro had met her a few hours earlier.
“It’s not like it matters,” Katherine commented, leaning against the wall and crossing her arms. She was, Taro thought, annoyingly calm. He hated calm people. They made him crazy.
Stevan gave her a share of his general glower. “The lowland yaps.”
Katherine snorted. “Oh aye. The Shieldless menace attacks my sense of pride. I am truly devastated.
Stevan sniffed. “Your mind is smooth as glass.”
Taro found it interesting how often Stevan accused others of being unthinking drones. It was something he remembered the older Source moaning on about at the Academy, and he continued to slip in additional comments at every Matching they both attended. It could be merely that Stevan really thought everyone else was that stupid, and that was hardly a unique flaw for a person to have. But Taro suspected what Stevan believed was a few unhealthy steps beyond the common conceit.
Stevan crossed the small room to pound on the door through which they had entered. “I need a new robe!” he yelled. “Bring me another robe! Immediately!”
It was an annoying racket, but it kept everyone’s attention off Taro, for which he was grateful. He was even glad that Stevan was there. Else he’d be the Shieldless menace everyone would shoot sarcastic remarks to, unless he put on a show that he just didn’t have the energy to create right then.
He couldn’t believe he was still waiting to be Chosen. He’d been so sure he would be Chosen at his first Matching. Almost every Source was Chosen at their first Matching. The numbers were in their favor, after all. And he was a good Source. He knew he was. Everyone said so. So what had happened?
What had happened was he didn’t get Chosen, and after the Matching he got so drunk that he couldn’t remember anything else. Except waking up the next morning with two people he didn’t know in his bed. That scared him enough that he didn’t drink quite so much when he failed to be Chosen at his next Matching, or the Matching after that, or the Matching after that.
What if no one ever wanted him?
He swallowed down panic. If he couldn’t be a proper Source, he had nothing. He’d end up pushing a broom at the Academy.
That drew a sharp bark of a laugh out of him, a picture of himself in the dull garb of an Academy servant, wiping down windows. And Her Grace’s face when she found out. He would like to see that.
Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. He hated waiting.
Someone came to the room to tell Stevan they had no other robes. People probably assumed a bunch of adults could stay clean for an hour or so.
Stevan blew up beautifully. “You incompetent bottom feeding miscreant!” he shrieked. “I’ll have you dismissed! I take everything of value off you! You shouldn’t be allowed to handle anything more important than - ”
“For gods’ sake, shut up!” Black roared so very loudly he cut through Stevan’s words and everyone else’s eardrums. When he realized he had everyone’s attention, he continued on in a more moderate tone. “No one here thinks you’re going to bond tonight. Including you, which is why you’re getting drunk and making an ass of yourself. So shut up and let us get out there.”
Stevan went purple. “Crawling putrescence!”
“Gods, you’re such a Source,” Taro muttered. No wonder everyone thought they were uncontrollable children.
There was a sharp ringing of a bell. Everyone heard it, even Stevan, who let out an explosive breath. That was their cue. Finally. They stood in alphabetical order and Thomas pushed open the door out to the arena.
As usual, there were too many torches in the arena, and it was too hot, especially in their heavy robes. The floor was rough against his feet. He was aware of the many spectators in the seats, but his eyes were drawn to the figures in white standing in a line in the middle of the floor.
They were trying not to watch the Sources entering the room. Or, at least, they were trying not to be caught watching. He smiled. They were so serious. Shields were always so serious, but it was amusing to watch the young ones strive for the same level of sober decorum as they probably saw in their professors. In his experience, Shields who actually worked out in the field were a little more relaxed.
He strove to remember their names. He’d read all their files, of course, it would be embarrassing to be chosen and not even know the person’s name, but the files didn’t tell him what he really wanted to know. What the Shields wanted with a Source. The reasons why Shields wanted him or any other Source. What they were looking for. Did they care whether a Source came from peasant, merchant, or aristocratic family? Did they care whether a Source had been studious, how early or late the Source had been released from the Academy for practical training?
Before the Sources could approach the Shields, of course, Cloudminder had to give a speech about the history of the world. It never changed, not by a word, even the places where she breathed were identical. He wondered how long she had been giving it. He wondered if she even heard herself anymore. Maybe it was possible to trick her into a tangent and she would totally lose her place.
That was stupid. His mind was all over the place. He should focus.
Focus on what? It wasn’t as though there was anything he could do to improve his chances. It was all leaves and wind.
He thought he might like Liam Everette as a Shield. According to his file he was smart, talented, and didn’t take himself too seriously. Some Shields were so pompous, and he’d rather not have to deal with that for the rest of his life. Liua Whiteley was another attractive possibility. Apparently she had played numerous pranks while growing up, her most recent one occurring about two weeks ago. He could use having a partner he could laugh with.
Finally, they were allowed to do what they were all there for. Black stood before the first Shield, a Corina Abberat. And there was no reaction.
He was ashamed that he was hoping there would be no reactions to any of the other Sources, not until he’d had a chance to try. He’d failed so many times before, and this was all their first Matching. Except for Stevan, of course, who was never going to bond, and that was because he didn’t deserve to bond. He would be no good for any Shield.
Sometimes Sources talked all sorts of trash about Shields. Like they were nothing more than servants. Like they should be willing to do anything the Source demanded because a Shield without a Source was nothing. Was useless.
Well, a Source without a Shield was just as useless. Taro had learned that. And the other Sources were starting to think of him as some kind of joke, that he couldn’t bond.
He wouldn’t treat his Shield like a servant. He wouldn’t ask for anything beyond being shielded. Though he hoped they could be friends.
Of course they could be friends. Everybody liked him. Except for the people who despised him.
Finally, he got to stand before Corina Abberat. She was very pretty in a blond sort of way. Other than that, there was nothing more than average about her. She had performed adequately in her classes. Her hobbies were making bracelets and gardening. She was kind of quiet.
He looked into her eyes.
Nothing happened. He held down debilitating disappointment. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t been a Shield he particularly wanted. He wanted to be Chosen. He wanted it all done so he could get on with his life.
He didn’t know what he would do if he went through a whole Matching without bonding. Getting drunk wasn’t enough.
He heard the first exclamation of joy. Liam had been Chosen. Damn it, Taro hadn’t even gotten a chance at him.
He looked at the next Shield, Haydon Cleary. The youngest of the new Shields. Extremely intelligent, he apparently thought being a Shield was a waste of his talents. Taro didn’t want to have to work with someone who felt disdain for what they did, but he would be better than nothing.
And there was nothing when he looked into his eyes.
The third Shield, Taro couldn’t remember anything about. Not his name, not any of his talents or personality traits. And it was just as well, because they didn’t Bond either.
And on it went, him looking into their eyes, and nothing happening. It became almost mechanical for him. For it was happening again. He wasn’t going to Bond. He was never going to Bond. He was turning into Stevan.
And then he looked into a pair of green eyes, which had a curious ring of bright light right around the pupil. He paused to look closer. The light grew, filling his own eyes, bathing his mind, racing down his arms and his torso down to his very toes. For a moment he couldn’t breathe, but that didn’t worry him. It was all, he felt, perfectly natural. Triumph bubbled up in the light. It was beautiful.
And then the light vanished, and he was looking down at a small woman, red hair flowing down over her shoulders, her white robe doing nothing for her coloring.
Dunleavy Mallorough, if he guessed correctly. A talented Shield, a dedicated student, and very serious.
She looked horrified. Wonderful. She listened to rumor, which didn’t thrill him. And what she had heard about him, she didn’t like. She was inclined to be the sort who despised him.
He didn’t care. He was Chosen. Nothing was going to ruin that. If she was the serious sort, he was just the type to loosen her up. If she was inclined to despise him, he would convince her otherwise.
He was too happy to be worried. He couldn’t help grinning. And if she was the sort to be disgusted by what the rumors claimed he was, he would be so polite, so diligent in his duty, that she couldn’t help thinking all the rumors wrong. He took her hand and kissed it, a dim memory telling him this was the way to show respect to new female acquaintances. “I’m Shintaro Karish,” he said. “My friends call me Taro.” And he really, really hoped they would be friends. “I am very pleased to finally meet you.” His Shield. He had a Shield. That meant everything. Someone to work with who would shield him better than any training Shield could. Someone who probably didn’t give a damn what he looked like, or who his brother was. Someone who wouldn’t expect him to be entertaining.
He could finally move out of the limbo he’d been stuck in, and do something useful.
She had hidden her horror behind an expression of polite disinterest, and her smile in response was a little tight, but at least she tried. “Dunleavy Mallorough.” She pulled her hand away. “It will be an honor to serve.”
He could see it already. She was going to maintain some kind of distance. “I see.”
She frowned. He had no idea why.
“Are your family here?” he asked.
She nodded. “Are yours?”
Now why had he inquired about her family? Of course she would ask him about his in response. “Of course not.” His and Her Grace would never disrupt their schedules to attend a Matching.
Dunleavy didn’t seem to know what to say to that. He didn’t blame her. He didn’t know what else to say, either.
And then a woman was hugging his Shield. And he watched his Shield’s distance melt as she hugged back. A red haired man kissed her, and two younger men and a younger woman all embraced Dunleavy in turn. They were comfortable and easy with each other. Taro grit his teeth, and did his best to hide his annoyance as he was introduced to Dunleavy’s parents and siblings.
But it was a good sign that she was easy with someone. She would learn to be easy with him.
He smiled at her. “Shall we head on over to the Horse’s Head?”
Her easy smile disappeared. “Of course,” she said a little stiffly.
Her family were obviously disappointed. He resented that. She was his Shield. Would they try to interfere with that? They had each other, and were obviously some kind of strange interdependent family of the sort one only saw in fiction. Dunleavy was now all he had.
But they merely hugged Dunleavy again and wished her well, and he relaxed. He offered her his arm, and though she looked at him strangely, she took it.
A few moments later, he felt calm and relaxed. And he reveled in it. It was easily explained. He had his Shield. That was all he had ever really wanted.
And if she didn’t seem thrilled with the results of the Match, well, he would fix that. He would make her like him. He had to.