Authors: S.M. Boyce
Tags: #dark fantasy, #Magic
He wrapped a hand around her waist and kissed her ear. “I think they can wait a little while longer.”
She grinned at the welcome distraction. “I suppose they can.”
Two hours later, Kara walked into the sunlight, left arm wrapped around Braeden’s elbow as he led her to their lunchtime reception. A carriage waited for them on the road outside the cave, its white body trimmed with gold that glittered in the sun. An Ayavelian man bowed as they neared and reached for the door, swinging it open. A stair swung forward to help passengers into the cart.
A breeze rolled past, prickling the skin on her exposed arm. She swallowed hard.
Braeden patted her hand. “It’s okay, Kara.”
She frowned. No, it wasn’t.
Braeden set a hand on her back and allowed her into the carriage first. She stepped on the stair and instinctively looked at the attendant as she entered. He examined her exposed and empty arm, but his eyes shifted away when she caught him. He cleared his throat and bowed his head.
Her frown deepened. She sat as far away from the door as she could in the little carriage. Inside, two benches covered in red cushions gave enough seating for four. Braeden stepped into the cabin and sat next to her.
He grinned and lifted her hand to kiss it. She smiled for Braeden’s sake, trying to forget the attendant, but the memory of his gaping stare made her want to fidget.
“When is the meeting with the Bloods?” she asked.
Braeden laughed. “This is your wedding, Kara. Can’t you relax for a day?”
She shrugged. “Sorry, Braeden, but not really.”
He took a deep breath and pulled her closer to him. She rested her head against his shoulder. His cologne danced around her nose, lulling her back toward happiness. “We meet with them this evening, after the reception ends. So no discussing business until then. This is a party, Kara.”
She smiled, even though he couldn’t see it. “Very well.”
To Kara’s credit, she smiled through almost all of the reception. Despite the speeches and hours spent mingling with officials she barely recognized, her heart still fluttered when Braeden shot her one of his mischievous grins. She even ignored a snide comment from Evelyn about how Braeden hadn’t needed a separate room after all.
But Kara couldn’t ignore the stares.
At some point through the day, every single pair of eyes rested on her naked arm. Every single person—even Aurora and Gurien—examined her arm out of their peripheral vision, frowning.
At least it was over.
She lay on her back in the Ayavelian castle, still in that stupid dress. She rubbed her bare arm and stared at the roof of the canopy bed, eyes shifting in and out of focus. Rain pelted the windows, a sudden front that moved in during the banquet. She closed her eyes and listened, savoring the patter of raindrops breaking against the glass.
Braeden shuffled about behind the closed bathroom door. The muffled rush of water sloshing in the tub leaked from the tiled chamber as he prepared for their meeting with the Bloods, where they would reveal their plan to ally with isen. The royals wouldn’t go for it, at least not at first. They would disagree and bicker. She didn’t even want to imagine what Evelyn would say, much less Gavin. No one liked isen in Ourea.
She sighed. Her shoulders ached.
Deep within her chest, a small voice burned with the desire to simply run away. It bubbled and whispered, too small to illicit anything more than guilt, but it persisted nonetheless.
“Do you really want to give up?” a voice asked from the edge of the bed.
She frowned. Once more, the first Vagabond had appeared unannounced, reading her thoughts and burrowing into places of her mind where he didn’t belong.
“No, I’m not going to run away,” she muttered.
“What’s happened to you?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Please just let me have some peace and quiet before the meeting with the Bloods.”
He didn’t respond. The pelting chorus of the rain consumed the room, tapping the glass in a broken rhythm.
Any icy touch burned her forehead. She shivered and pushed away, eyes snapping open. The Vagabond’s ghost leaned over her, his hood pulled back to reveal his face. His hand reached for her cheek.
“What are you doing?” she snapped.
“Bringing you to your senses.”
She rolled her eyes and pushed herself off the bed to get away from him.
He sat on the mattress. “What’s driving this sadness? Guilt for killing those Kirelms?”
“You can read my mind. Figure it out.”
“I can only understand as much as you’ve processed, but even you don’t seem to know what’s going on. We have to work through this together.”
“Fine. Just not now.”
“You’re running away from this problem, exactly like that little voice wanted.”
She frowned and crossed her arms, but didn’t object. She fought with the accusation, wrestling with it, looking for some weakness in the argument, but she couldn’t find one. Her shoulders relaxed. She leaned into the wall and grumbled.
“I only want to make things right,” she said, her voice quiet.
She shook her head. “How? Everything falls apart the more I try to fix it. I get Gavin on my side, he tries to enslave me with the tiara. I unite the Bloods, they betray me and try to enslave me again. I get the drenowith on our side, Aislynn tries to kill them. We unite the Bloods again, Niccoli dies and the isen are now a threat. Why do I even bother?”
The Vagabond studied her, frowning. “What is this frustration really about?”
She laughed. “What—seriously? Everything! This is about failure. It’s about exhaustion. It’s about—”
“—guilt,” he finished for her.
Her mouth snapped shut. A ball formed in her throat, tightening until she wanted to cry.
The first Vagabond stood. “You still feel the guilt of killing all of those Kirelms.”
A tear pricked her eye. She wiped it away.
She eventually whispered, “Wouldn’t you?”
He sighed. “And what will redeem you? Risking your life?”
She stared at the floor to avoid looking at him. “I just want to finish this war and move on with life.”
“You can’t redeem shame, Kara.”
A fresh wave of pricks erupted at the corners of her eyes. She bit her lip to stop the tears. “I have to make up for what I’ve done. I have to do something.”
Any icy hand chilled her shoulder. She shivered. It retreated.
He let out a slow breath. “It’s natural to feel guilt. But the shame—it will eat you. It’s a gremlin, a creature that feeds on your own self-loathing. It doesn’t make you a better person—it cripples you from within. It will never be full, even when there’s nothing left of the person you once were. If you succumb to it, you will fail. The only redemption left for you is in conquering your shame and reclaiming yourself.”
She glanced at him with watery eyes, one hand over her lips as she tried to fight back the urge to sob. He watched her, his mouth a thin line in something between pride and worry.
“You’ll overcome this, same as you’ve overcome everything else,” he added.
The door to the bathroom swung open. Kara glanced over and looked back at the first Vagabond, but he was gone.
Braeden smiled from the doorway, rubbing a towel over his hair, his eyes alive with joy. The smile faded just as fast when he got a good look at her. He wore pants, but no shirt, and her heart fluttered in a pang of desire that cleared her mind for a second.
He dropped his towel and crossed to her in a few long strides. He held her face and examined her, eyebrows furrowing in concern. “What’s wrong?”
She shook her head. “I’ll be fine.”
“Are you upset about the bond?” he asked.
She hesitated, confused for a moment before it sunk in. He didn’t understand the lingering guilt of her murders. He thought these tears were for the failed bond—another of her failures, granted, but not the one pressing on her conscience at the moment.
He pulled her into a long kiss, his lips hesitating on hers before pulling her deeper under the spell of his touch. She lost herself in him, letting the worry and pain linger on the surface while she retreated into herself and into him.
His mouth released her, but he only moved far enough away to speak. His breath tickled her lips, teasing her with his proximity. “Bond or no, I have you, Kara. That’s all I care about. That’s everything I want. Even if I can’t sense you everywhere you go, even if we can never have children, I don’t care. You’re the greatest part of my world.”
She smiled. A tear creased down her cheek. He wiped it away and kissed her again.
Guilt or no—shame or no—at least she had Braeden.
Kara sat in a chair by the only window in one of Ayavel’s many war rooms. Braeden sat beside her, one hand wrapped in hers under the table. The wooden surface spanned the full length of the room, taking up almost all of the open space and leaving only enough room to walk behind the chairs. Their backs were to the window, its glass spanning the full height and width of the wall. Rain poured outside, pattering against the glass as it had since the late afternoon. It showed no signs of letting up.
Light flickered from a few sconces on the wall, but the storm sucked almost all light from the room. Kara took a deep breath, waiting.
The Bloods weren’t late—she was early. After her talk with the first Vagabond, she didn’t give him a chance to slip back into the conversation. She wanted to focus on the topic at hand: isen.
“Do you still think recruiting isen is a good idea?” Braeden asked.
She caught his eye but hesitated. He frowned, one eyebrow quirked as he waited for an answer.
The doors swung open. Neither Kara nor Braeden stood. In walked Evelyn and Frine. Evelyn’s iridescent skin reflected reds and blues onto the walls as she walked, the three pupils in each of her large eyes all focused on Kara. Frine also kept his gaze on her, his coal-black eyes massive in his bald, blue head. The Lossian Blood nodded once and took his seat.
Seconds later, Aurora entered. The Kirelm Blood straightened her back and smiled, a new placeholder wing covering the stump of the one Carden sawed off in the Stelian prisons. Its white frame matched her good wing perfectly, its metal bars curved to mimic the flow of the feathers and bone that once graced her thin back. It seemed to give the queen balance as she walked into the war room, but Kara wondered what inner demons her newfound friend fought as they planned to return to the Stele—a place of such suffering for the girl.