"Did she look like you?"
Faith shook her head. "Our maternal DNA was different. After my birth, the PsyClan decided not to risk producing another F cardinal. We're valued because we're rare and they didn't want to glut the market." That cold reasoning had been explained to her long ago, no one seeming to consider the psychological impact it might have on a child to realize she was nothing but a product manufactured for a very specific purpose.
"So the M-Psy selected a number of maternal candidates whose genetic history lacked any foreseers." They'd also chosen highly telepathic women, for the very reason that one day Faith would need a keeper, and her father preferred to retain power in the hands of the immediate family. "It worked. Marine was a Tp cardinal with no hint of F designation abilities. She had skin like ... like milk coffee, and a mental voice so clear, it had the resonance of a perfectly tuned bell. Her mother was from the Caribbean."
"But she lived with your PsyClan?"
"That was part of the reproduction contract. The maternal side of her family was interested in seeing if they could produce an F-Psy, so my father allowed them to use his genetic material on another female in their line.
"The resulting male offspring has never been considered part of NightStar, as Marine was never considered a member of the Caribbean family." She paused at the look on his face. "You don't understand. Neither do I. I don't think I ever did. If I had, I wouldn't have been so hungry for knowledge of Marine.
"I used to imagine playing with her as a child - before that kind of imagination was conditioned out of me. She was this fantasy and everything I needed in a friend." But never in reality had there been any hint of friendship in their dealings with each other, two perfect Psy with ice water running in their veins. "Now I won't ever have the chance to know her. She's gone." For always.
She stared fixedly at a point past Vaughn's shoulder. When he moved to stand beside her, his hand stroking her unbound hair, she didn't tell him to move away. She needed to know that he'd heard her silent sorrow, that he knew about Marine. Someone had to know, someone had to remember in case Faith didn't make it.
A single tear streaked down her face and it was the first time such a thing had happened in her memory. It was liquid fire across her skin, so hot, so pure. "She was killed to satisfy bloodlust, her life snuffed out because the darkness was hungry for pain and torture. And I was too weak to stop it." She uncurled the fingers of one hand and rubbed it across her heart, trying to ease the guilt that had twisted a knot inside of her.
"You didn't have the skills." Vaughn's voice was so consciously gentle it hurt.
"Didn't I? Or maybe I didn't want to see what the visions were trying to tell me, was too much of a coward."
"The guilt won't ever go away," he told her with changeling frankness, "but you can stop it from being so corrosive."
"By doing something that balances the scales, by saving someone else's daughter or sister." The sharp blade of knowledge cut every word.
She looked up into his face, unsurprised to find his eyes gone utterly cat. "Will you tell me about her?" Already she knew this jaguar walked alone. But she wanted him to trust her this much at least.
His hand stilled on her hair. "My sister starved to death because I was too young and weak to find enough food to keep her alive. And I miss her every day of my life."
Faith reached out in an effort to give comfort, the first time she'd done so. The hand she put on his thigh was tentative, but it held so much and, though he said nothing to acknowledge the act, he began to stroke her hair again.
"What was her name?"
"Skye." His voice dropped until it was more growl than human. "Our parents abandoned us in predator territory with nothing but the clothes on our backs."
"But they were changelings."
"Being animal is no guarantee against evil." Vaughn's thigh turned rock-hard under her hand. "My parents weren't evil, but they were caught up in it - I have to think that to keep myself sane."
She stayed silent, trying to give him what he'd given her.
"My parents were very young and unmarried when they had me - most jaguars don't follow human customs. Skye was born three years later. When she was two and a half, they joined a new church and got married. Soon afterward, they gave up their worldly possessions and we began living in a commune." His voice was hard. "That wouldn't have mattered if I hadn't begun to notice the way some of the 'elders' looked at Skye. She was a baby and they wanted to put their hands on her."
Faith couldn't imagine anything so horrendous. "You protected her."
"I got her killed." Vaughn had lived with that knowledge for over two decades. "I was always with her - I refused to allow them near. I was labeled a problem child and my parents had to discipline me according to their new religion." Hours of beatings, of isolation, of being told he was "full of sin."
It had terrified him that they'd get to Skye while he was locked up, but his parents must not have been completely lost because they'd always kept Skye close while he was being punished. "When it became clear that I wasn't going to relent and that I'd taught the other kids to be wary of the elders, too, they began a campaign to get rid of us. They told our parents to prove their devotion to their new God by giving up the 'fruits of sin,' the children they'd borne out of wedlock."
"How could ... ?" Faith shook her head in bewilderment and he realized how hard he'd clenched his hand in her hair.