Authors: Shannon Mayer
“You have no idea,” he whispered into my ear. His teeth grazed its edge as his hands explored my body and I returned the favor. I helped him remove his pants and then mine. Our bodies were hard with muscle, scarred and bruised, yet I felt none of that as he slid into my warmth.
Home. This was home.
Our hearts beat in time with one another, our mouths breathed as one, our bodies tangled until there was no telling where one of us began and the other ended.
In all my years, even with Coal, nothing had prepared me for this feeling of unity. Of knowing the person I was with would always stand with me. Even when he didn’t agree with me. Maybe even more so in those moments.
Trust. Love. Faith. They were all bound in the heat between us.
Ash was one of the few people in my life who
me, and my secrets, and loved me still.
I linked my fingers with his, reached above our heads and pressed our joined hands against the wall. “Don’t stop.” The words from my mouth in a whispered plea.
The cadence of our joining never faltered, never became frantic as we stared into each other’s eyes. A glimmer of possibility spun in front of me, and I knew it for what it was, even if I didn’t understand it wholly.
Spirit wove through us, showing me what could be if I stayed. If I forsook my father and stayed here, with Ash.
Laughter, love, a home.
A child with golden eyes and blond hair who carried his father’s smile as he held my fingertip with his tiny hand.
Ash’s hands . . . he would fight for me, hold me tight when I fell, lift me in the dark hours. A companion who would never turn from me, or the battles I chose.
The Rim, empty of life, desolate and barren. Our family wiped out.
That last confused me. What would happen if I didn’t stay? If I went after my father? The question spun out another possibility.
Blood pooled on the dead soil, the tip of my spear buried in it to the wooden haft.
Bodies littered the ground.
My father’s face twisted with anger.
Standing alone in the middle of the Rim.
My people alive, battered and bruised, but alive.
Survival for my world even while I lost all I held dear.
I closed my eyes, but the images were there. They started a flood of tears I couldn’t hold back as I reached my peak. Climax of the body, and a piercing of the soul at the same time tore a cry from my lips. I untangled my hands from Ash’s and wrapped my arms around him, clinging to him as I sobbed. He spoke, but his words were the buzzing of a bee’s nest in my ears as Spirit throbbed through me, ebbing as though a tide receding on the sand.
“Larkspur, look at me.” Ash’s voice was hard and finally cut through the emotional storm raging inside.
I blinked several times and did as he asked. He’d rolled us to our sides, his right arm tucked under us as he kept me pulled tightly to him. “I’m sorry, it . . . it was Spirit.”
His turn to blink several times, confusion clouding his eyes. “What do you mean?”
“It showed me a possibility.” I made as if to move away from him and he tightened his arm around me.
“No. Talk to me, Lark. Any problems we’ve had have been because of piss-poor communication.”
Mother goddess, how could I tell him what I saw? It would only reinforce that he was right and I should stay. The problem? I saw all too clearly the child with his father’s smile and golden eyes. Yet that path would lead to the destruction of the Rim.
As would the second; though it at least left life to start again.
“I think I saw what would happen if I stayed. And if I left.” I paused and he touched the side of my face.
“Neither option ended well.” I trailed a hand down the side of his face.
This. I wanted this and I wanted him. I wanted the little boy who would call me mama. My heart felt as though it would burst. Ash dropped his lips to mine.
“I don’t want to lose this, Lark.”
“We won’t.” I had to believe I could have it. To believe I could go after my father and have the fairy tale of Ash at my side and a future together.
A soft scratching at the door turned my head.
Peta spoke as though she had her mouth pressed against the wood. “Lark, you and Ash better get your clothes on. Cactus is on his way.”
His name shot through me, reminding me that my heart was torn in two, even if at the moment it leaned precipitously toward Ash. Scrambling to get my clothes on, I noticed Ash lying on the bed, stretched out like some sort of languorous cat who’d filled his belly with warm milk. Almost like he wanted Cactus to catch him.
Damn man. Damn me for sleeping with him.
No. I would not regret Ash. But I couldn’t stop the guilt that cascaded through me. I couldn’t tell Cactus. Not yet. Maybe not ever, if I wanted to remain friends with him.
But it wasn’t fair to string him along either.
Still, I knew I wasn’t ready to let him go.
“Get your clothes on!” I threw Ash’s pants at him.
He laughed and shook his head. “You think I don’t know you have feelings for Cactus? I would share you, if you asked it of me. But he won’t, Larkspur. We both know that. He has too much Salamander in him. Jealous bastards that they are.”
I pulled the last of my clothes on and turned my back as he laughed softly. There wasn’t an ounce of meanness in it. That wasn’t his way. He didn’t hide once he’d set his mind on something.
In this case, he’d clearly set his mind and heart on me. I jerked the door open. Peta sat on her haunches in her housecat form and stared up at me with large, too-innocent green eyes.
Heat flushed my face. “How much do you sense when I . . .” I waved my hand behind me to encompass the bedroom and a still-lounging Ash.
“Enough to know not to find you right away. I’ve been through this a time or two, Lark. Trust me to know what I’m doing.” She trotted away. “Perhaps you should follow me, Dirt Girl.”
I took her advice and hurried after the twitching white tip of her tail as she led the way back into the main hall where the training room was situated. In the minute it took to get there, I calmed myself.
I’d done nothing wrong. I’d never promised Cactus anything.
As I stepped into the main room, the door across from me swung open, and Cactus strode in. Whatever calm I’d gathered fled. My heart did a funny little jump followed by a spurt of guilt.
“Lark, you should have come and woken me.” He grinned, his bright green eyes glittering with good humor. We’d been back in the Rim for only a few days, but already he’d gained strength and health. He jogged toward me, grabbed my hand and lifted it to his mouth, kissing the back of it.
“Mmm. A bit sweaty. Been working out already?” He lifted his eyes to mine and I jerked my hand away. A rush of heat climbed my neck and I fought to get my emotions under control. I did not want to hurt him. He had been my best friend when we were children, and he’d helped me both times I had to enter the Pit as an adult even though it had been years since I’d seen him last.
Peta put herself between us, her tail twitching spastically. “What do you want, Cactus? Lark is an Ender and has duties that have nothing to do with you.”
He crouched and ran a hand backward along her fur, messing it up in a single swoosh. “Easy, Peta. I want to see if I can help find her father.”
She swatted at him, hissing a word that made my eyes pop.
“You two knock it off.” I bent and scooped Peta up, and placed her on my shoulder. “I’m going to see Bella, then I’m leaving the Rim.” The words slid out of me. As always, the timing seemed to be against me.
“That’s your decision?” Ash said behind us. His voice ghosted over my skin, bringing a rather delicious shiver of remembered pleasure. I held my ground, afraid if I turned he would be naked still. Cactus looked past me, his eyes narrowing ever so slightly.
“You think you can make her stay?”
“I’m trying. Her father is not the king he once was. I don’t believe he is worth the danger she would put herself in by going after him. I think you would agree, Cactus. Her life is more important than his.” Ash drew closer as he spoke, his voice gaining in increments.
Cactus straightened. “I’ll support her in whatever decision she makes. I always have.”
Before they could say anything else, I strode forward, putting distance between both men and myself. Peta gripped my vest to keep her balance. Her words, though, surprised me. “To think they both love you like that. A blessing, I should say.”
“Easy for you to say. You aren’t the one stuck between them.”
She laughed. “True enough. True enough. But can you imagine
fun if you could convince them to share you?”
My lips twitched and I let the sad smile spread over them, knowing it for the dream it was. “All too easily.”
left the men behind, and went looking for Bella.
“Who listened in on us at the blasted field?”
Peta shivered. “A Rim guard.”
“I lost him in a crush of people. He was wearing a helmet. I never saw his face, but he was missing a hand.”
Coal. My ex-lover was the only one I knew who was missing a hand, and he was a Rim guard. Why had he been spying on me?
“That’s Coal.” I rubbed the back of my neck. Damn. It was possible he’d been manipulated by Blackbird. Coal had been one of Cassava’s pawns too.
“He was my lover. I took his hand, and now he’s struggling to live without it. If we have time we’ll talk to him.”
I didn’t want to talk to Coal, though. The last time I’d seen him things had gotten ugly between us. His mind was not stable, a side effect of losing his hand.
As we walked, I told Peta about Cassava and the things she’d done. How she controlled everyone using the Spirit gemstone, how she killed my mother and baby brother, Bramley, and how in the end, I’d fought her and saved our family from the lung burrowers.
Peta swayed on my shoulder, shaking her head. “It is hard to believe one person could cause so much pain.”
I stepped around a downed log and pushed through a small patch of huckleberry bushes. “She’s still alive, Peta. I doubt she’s done causing pain.”
We found Bella in the forest on the west side toward the ocean. She sat with her hands in her lap, carefully holding her belly. Though she was not far along, her tiny waist gave truth to her condition already.
She smiled when she saw me but her lips trembled. “Lark. You heard the news about Vetch?”
I nodded. “Yes. He’s booted you out already?”
Bowing her head, she put a hand to her eyes. “He threatened my baby, Lark. Said all half-breeds should be slaughtered as the curs they are.”
Peta hissed, low and long. I had to agree. I sat on the log beside Bella. “You shouldn’t stay then, Bella. It isn’t safe.”
“Where would I go?”
I took her hand, squeezing her fingers gently. “Finley would take you in until we can straighten this out.”
Bella’s jaw twitched. “You think I could go back there after what Requiem did to me?”