Authors: Brigid Kemmerer
Instead, he says, “Yeah. I could.”
“Taking orders requires trust, Jacob. You would have to trust me.”
“Like … not try to drown you?”
I lift my eyes skyward. “Forget I asked.”
“No. I can do that.” He pauses. “If you can trust me when I say you’re wrong.” He draws back his sleeve, where more than a dozen stitches lace up the skin of his wrist. “Instead of doing this.”
My eyes widen. “You have my word.”
He puts out a hand. “Deal.”
I clasp it. “I may regret this when I’m sober.”
“Yeah, same.” He tries to jerk the bottle back from me.
“Enough.” I hold fast. “We are still in danger, Jacob.”
“Fine.” He sighs and lets go. “And, look. If we’re going to be friends, you’re going to have to start calling me Jake.”
For the first time in days, the mood among our traveling party carries little tension. I’m playing cards with Noah and Tycho and Iisak, though the scraver seems more focused on the distant conversation between Jake and Grey.
“Can you hear them?” I say softly.
He gives a short nod, then lays a card on the pile between us.
“You shouldn’t eavesdrop,” says Noah. He adds another card.
“I cannot help what I am,” says Iisak.
“Are they going to kill each other?” says Tycho, and his voice says he’s not entirely joking.
“No,” says Iisak. He pauses and surveys the cards in his hand. “The young prince is wise.”
I glance over at where the young men are speaking, but they’ve already risen and are approaching the fire. I quickly look back at my cards.
“Your Highness,” says Iisak. “Join us.”
“I’ve told you to stop calling me that,” Grey says, but his voice holds no rancor. He eases to the ground beside me unsteadily, then rubs at his eyes.
Jake trails his fingers across Noah’s shoulder and says, “I’m going to crash for a few hours.”
“Crash?” I echo.
Jake grins. “Sleep.” Noah’s hand comes up to cover his for a brief moment, then lets go. Jake disappears into the darkness.
I watch him go, very conscious of Grey at my side. I’ve been worried about him since the fight with Jake—no. In truth, since we rode out of Blind Hollow.
“You didn’t kill each other,” says Tycho.
“Not yet,” Grey drawls.
“Jake is a good guy,” says Noah. He rearranges the cards in his hand, then adds one to the growing pile.
Grey makes a noncommittal sound. “I have asked him to ride at my side when we enter Syhl Shallow.”
Noah looks up. “Really.”
Grey nods. “We will need a show of strength if we can manage it.”
I look across at Iisak, meeting his coal-black eyes. Now I understand what he meant about the prince being wise.
Tycho has gone still beside Noah. I can read the emotions as they cross his face, as easily as words on a page.
I would have ridden at your side.
But you do not think I am strong enough to offer a show of strength.
Tycho recovers quickly, then lays down his cards. “I believe I will
too.” He uncurls from the ground.
Grey is no fool. “Tycho.”
Tycho stops. Waits. The firelight flickers off his eyes.
“This is not a slight,” says Grey.
“I know.” He slips into the shadows effortlessly.
Grey watches him go, then sighs. “Silver hell.” I think he might go after Tycho, but he puts out a hand. “I’ll take his cards.”
We play in silence for the longest time, the fire crackling beside us.
“Tycho is young,” Grey says eventually, his voice very quiet, “and small for his age—”
“Like I said, he would follow you off a cliff,” says Noah.
Grey sighs again.
“Tycho would have kept riding today,” I say. Even I know Jake was right. I might not agree with his means, but I could see Grey’s exhaustion all morning. He still looks sleepy, his eyes heavy-lidded.
“Jake is a good choice,” says Iisak, his voice bringing a cold breeze to make the fire gutter. “Karis Luran respects strength.”
Grey glances at me. “What else does she respect?”
I blush and look down at my cards. “Strength and virility. She says she chose my father because he had the most kills in battle. He is quite a powerful general in the northern part of Syhl Shallow.” I don’t like to think about his prowess on the battlefield, to wonder if I would have been a disappointment to both a father
a mother. It’s bad enough to be a disappointment to one.
“He does not rule at her side?”
“Oh, no. He has no place in the palace. I do not even know him. She merely chose him to father her firstborn. She chose another when she desired to have another child.”
No one says anything, and I look up from my cards to discover I have everyone’s attention.
“You don’t marry in Syhl Shallow?” says Noah.
“Oh. Some do. But the queen can choose her … her mate.” My cheeks turn pink. “A queen needs no king to stand at her side.”
“But she was willing to marry your sister to Rhen,” says Grey.
“She’ll marry Nolla Verin to you, too, if you’ll claim the throne.”
Grey says nothing, and I don’t have the courage to look at him. I remember his quiet voice in the inn last night.
I am not refusing blindly.
My cheeks feel warm again, my blush fed by his silence. I can feel the weight of his eyes.
“In truth,” I say, “I do not understand following the lineage of
, when it is the woman who bears the child. And what should birth order have to do with whether someone is fit to rule?”
Grey plays a card. “Here, we believe in fate. That is why the firstborn is considered heir. Because fate delivered that child into the world first.” He glances at me. “And the mother may bear the child, but she did not put it there herself.”
chooses your heir,” I say. “You leave such a thing up to chance?”
“How is that any different from leaving the choice up to one individual?” He flips a card onto the pile and misses by a few inches.
I study him more closely. “Grey—are you unwell?”
Noah chuckles. “At least Jake had the sense to go lie down.”
Grey clenches his eyes shut. “I told you I had no head for spirits.”
My eyebrows go way up. Now I understand the slow drawl of his words. “You’re drunk?”
He rubs at his eyes. “Perhaps a bit.”
Noah’s still smiling. “Jake’s pretty smooth.” He looks at Iisak. “What about your people? Do you have a king or a queen?”
“We have one ruler,” the scraver says, and the breeze that sweeps among us is so cold that it makes me shiver. “Though I have been gone so long I no longer know who holds power.” His eyes shift to me. “Your mother may know.”
“What will she demand of you?” I say. “For breaking the treaty.”
“Likely more than I will be willing to give.”
I think of my mother, and I know he is not wrong. When he asked for the right to accompany us into Syhl Shallow, he said Mother holds something of great value to him.
Iisak lays another card on the pile. Frost tips the corners, melting into the leaves below. “I will pay whatever price she demands and return home.”
I can’t tell if the note in his voice is longing or disappointment—or both. “What does she have?” I say quietly.
“Something quite dear to me.” He pauses. “I did not want to leave the ice forests. The scravers are not great in number, and our females can only bear one child in their lifetime. When the magesmiths were destroyed, we were left vulnerable. The treaty with Syhl Shallow gave us some protection. To break it puts all at risk.”
“It must have been very dear,” says Grey, “for you to risk all you did.”
“I did not intend to be gone this long.” Iisak smiles ruefully, baring the edges of his fangs. “I did not intend to be captured.”
“I saw you fight in Blind Hollow,” says Noah. “How
someone capture you?”
“A bit of misplaced trust and a well-timed arrow.” He lifts his arm to trace a black stripe that must be a scar. The line disappears under his wing. He glances at me. “I will be very grateful for an intercession with your mother, Princess.”
“Of course.” My cheeks warm, and I frown. “Though you should know that my mother rarely accepts my counsel. I may not be any ally at all, Iisak.”
“Protecting her child should carry weight,” he says.
I give a humorless laugh. “One would think.”
“I would be greatly in your debt.”
“I will do all I can,” I say, and mean it.
Grey looks at me. “Your mother is a fool if she does not accept your counsel. I do not know your sister, but I find it hard to believe her wisdom and compassion surpasses yours.”
Like earlier, his voice is a little too intent, his words a little too honest.
“My mother does not value
,” I say.
“Then she is a fool.”
I laugh softly. “You said that already.”
“Rhen should have listened to you. Negotiated with you. You would care for the people of Emberfall.”
“Yes,” I say somberly. “I would.”
“He was a fool as well.”
Across the fire, Noah laughs under his breath. “You should get some more sleep, Grey.”
Grey hasn’t looked away from me. “You escaped through the fireplace.”
I smile. “Yes. I did.”
His eyes are so serious. “You stopped to help Tycho.”
He’s not smiling. “You risked yourself, Lia Mara.” He pauses. “You could have been discovered.”
I inhale to answer, to say that I couldn’t have left that boy
hanging and bleeding along the wall any more than I could have let my mother kill the trapper’s daughter hiding in the woods. But Grey’s hand lifts to trace the spill of hair that hangs along my face, and my breath catches.
“Brave girl,” he says.
No one has ever called me brave. They’ve called me clever. Sturdy. Studious. Kind.
. My heart thrums in my chest.
In the distance, the sky rumbles. Iisak’s wings ruffle, and he looks up. “The air promises rain soon.”
Grey’s hand drops. “How soon?”
“Within the hour, I would think.”
My heart won’t stop racing, but Grey gathers the cards. “Wake Jake and fetch Tycho. We’ll need to find shelter.”
The rain pours down before we’re ready, darkening everyone’s mood. The mountains tower to our left, hulking and black in the midnight darkness. My heart trips and stumbles at the sight.
Home is on the other side. I might be in my own bed tomorrow night, surrounded by plush blankets and stacks of books and all the warm tea I can drink.
And Grey, who will likely be thrust at my sister. Thrust into accepting his birthright.
I’ll be thrust into the shadows while more important people do more important things.
The thought stings, and I shove it away.
We ride into the hills, water soaking into our clothes. The tack turns slippery, and the horses skid in the mud, but our persistence
is rewarded: we find a cave. It’s not very deep, but it’s wide enough that we can tether the horses out of the rain and build a fire to warm ourselves. I have fresh clothes from Blind Hollow in my pack, and though they’re a tiny bit damp from where water breached the leather stitching, the leggings and blouson are a far sight better than drenched skirts. I strip out of my boots, leave the men by the fire, and move to the other side of the horses to change.
Once I’m done, I spare a quick glance over to see if they’re finished as well. Grey’s back is to me, and he’s changed into clean dark pants, but he’s still shirtless. The sight steals my breath and stops my heart. More than half a dozen scars bisect the muscles across his shoulders, thick dark lines marring the perfection of his skin.
I saw it happen, and it was terrible.
Seeing the aftermath is terrible.
Grey begins to turn, as if sensing my gaze, and I busy myself with adjusting the horse’s tether. When I look up again, he’s fully dressed, and he’s crossed half the cave to reach me.
I swallow and wonder if he noticed me staring. I’m not sure what to say. Either the rain or the time in the cooler air has sobered him, because his eyes are clearer and sharper than they were by the fire.
I clear my throat. “Forgive me,” I say. “I was—I was looking to see if you were done.”
“I am.” He puts a hand on the neck of the horse beside me, rubbing beneath its mane. He’s so gentle with animals that it always takes me by surprise. Nolla Verin will like that about him, I think.
My throat is tight again.
“We will reach Syhl Shallow tomorrow,” he says softly. “I would like to ride out before sunrise. The rain should give us a cover and allow us to reach the mountain pass unseen.”
I nod, because I have no idea what my voice will sound like.
“What kind of force will we encounter on your side?”
It takes me a moment to parse out the question. He did not approach me for quiet conversation; he is seeking military strategy. Any emotion between us is locked in my thoughts, not his. I clear my throat and look away.
“We … we have soldiers stationed at the pass.” I have to clear my throat again. “They should recognize me, but they will likely hold us at the guard station until someone can come from the palace to retrieve us.” My mother will not have me riding through the streets looking like a rat pulled from a gutter.
His eyes trace my face. “Thank you.”
He looks like he’s about to turn away, so I clear my throat. “Grey.”
He waits. “My lady?”
I’m not sure what I want from him, but I don’t want this moment to end. I want to sit by the fire and teach him Syssalah. I want to touch
lips and whisper secrets in the dark. I want to step into him, to press my face against his chest and listen to his heartbeat. I want to trace the scars on his back and tell him how he did not deserve one single mark.