The curse should have been mine.
The next week passed by in a blur, and Alethea spent the time huddled in her room. She felt a hollow ache inside her. Rafa kept her company on most days, though they rarely spoke. He would bring news of the family and clan, which Alethea would take in with little reaction, before they lapsed into long silences.
Father and Mother told the other clan leaders that Abigail was ill and resting in their cabin retreat. They both bore it with remarkable grace, as far as Alethea could tell. She knew Father would need to handle clan politics and decide if he would continue to conceal the truth. A cursed Chieftain could not maintain his position. Furthermore, if the Phoenix’s prophecy proved true, a famine would soon set in, and he might need to contend with the Sparrow clan. All of this, in addition to accepting Abigail’s fate.
The curse should have been mine.
Her sister was beloved by the Dragons. Only four people even knew of Alethea’s existence, yet the curse passed over her and ensnared Abigail. What some might consider good fortune plagued her with guilt.
While she would never admit such cowardice aloud, she did not think the curse would be a terrible fate for her. While it was a tragedy to befall Abigail, who was full of life and vivacity, it was not such an awful alternative for Alethea. The outside world frightened her. There was almost an alluring quality to drifting in dreams for the rest of her life.
“Hey, Lethe.” Rafa knocked on the door. “Can I come in?”
He never knocked, or asked before. She knew he was treading carefully around her.
She noted the dark shadows under his eyes and disheveled hair, but he still smiled bravely for her. Her heart throbbed with renewed vigor and she felt ashamed. Rafa cared for Abigail too, though he expressed no need for comfort.
“Anything new?” she asked, trying to infuse some warmth into her voice.
His expression turned bleak. “The crops are failing.”
“So it’s real.” She stared at the ground. “What’s Father doing?”
“He’s in endless council meetings, trying to convince them of the Phoenix’s prophecy. Or curse. He wants to meet with Sparrow, but there’s hard opposition from many of the clan leaders.”
“Why?” Alethea felt indignation stir inside her, and she clung to the sensation. It was the first feeling outside of dull aching she experienced since the curse took Abigail.
Rafa sighed. “There’s years of bad blood between the clans. Some have lost family in land skirmishes.”
Alethea thought of her father, valiant and noble in the face of trials. She felt a wrench in her chest. “I wish I could help,” she murmured. “Abi would know how to. If our places were exchanged—”
“Don’t say that,” Rafa interjected.
Her whole world was out there.” She gestured at the window, the words spilling out as she felt a sudden urge to make him understand. “It was bright, beautiful, romantic. She had everything. This is my world, Rafa. In here, with the four of you. It’s all I know.” She paused, and finally allowed herself to say the words. “The curse should have been mine. Look around you. It was already mine.”
Silence reigned as she and Rafa stared at each other, a current of shared pain passing between them.
“Lethe,” he said, quietly but firmly, “you can’t think that. Abi and your Father and Mother would never have wished it upon you.”
“You don’t understand.” She closed her eyes. “I would have taken it, if I could. Yes, because I love Abi, but also because I can bear it.” Unexpected anger coursed through her. “But now that witch cursed Abi and me in an even worse way, stealing her life and leaving me behind.”
“Then let us use it well, what she has left behind.”
Alethea looked behind Rafa to find Father standing there, a stern but kind look on his face. She felt a wave of embarrassment, wondering how much of her outburst he heard. At the same time, it was liberating to have said the words weighing on her heart for the past week—or longer.
“Father,” she greeted.
“Alethea, I have no right to burden you any further.” The shadow of grief spread over his face. “But I’m asking for your help.”
Abigail’s pearl pendant felt heavy around her neck. The cold, charcoaled-colored gem rested just above her heart, shifting as she bounced lightly on her steed.
Jade was Abigail’s horse as well. Rafa rode beside her at the start of their journey, using his hand to subtly guide her. To Alethea’s surprise and relief, horseback riding came naturally to her and she could handle herself after the first two hours.
“Demarion said you don’t have to do this,” Rafa whispered, when they drifted behind her Father and the half dozen leaders and guards accompanying them.
“I want to,” she said. “For Abi, and all the rest of us.”
Alethea tried to quell the fear battling for control of her, drinking in the new sensations instead: Jade’s formidable muscles moving beneath her, the relentless heat beating down on her skin, the smell of rock and shrubbery, and the craggy paths of the Adamaris circling the mountain.
So much could go wrong. Alethea was almost identical to her sister in appearance, but their personalities were worlds apart. Her father’s precarious position was a mere mistake away from ruin.
“I see them!” someone ahead of the riding party called.
They came to a slow halt and her Father waved for her to come to the front. She tried to present an aura of confidence as she rode up, privately grateful that none of the men had spoken to her or asked questions during their journey. They were the select few who knew her real identity after Father confided the truth to them. Loyal as hounds, he claimed, as he described these men. She heard the clicking of another pair of hooves, and knew Rafa brought up her rear.
“How are you doing?” Father asked.
“Fine,” Alethea replied. She sat up straighter and met his gaze. “I can do this.”
A genuine smile touched his lips. “I know. You are my Alethea Dragon-daughter.” His words warmed her. “Don’t worry. I will do all the talking. It’s simply tradition to bring the next-in-line for Chief.”
They began moving again. An elegant gray-haired woman led the other party and a young man with raven hair rode beside her. His high cheekbones and square jaw lent him a regal, commanding presence. Alethea felt small in comparison, a new wave of helplessness threatening to engulf her. She looked at her father and Rafa for strength, leaning on her father’s encouraging words.
“Demarion Dragon-Chief,” the woman said, dismounting from her steed in a fluid motion. The young man imitated her.
“Lady Meike of the Sparrows,” her father returned. He descended from his horse and bowed.
Rafa was already beside Alethea, helping her alight when Demarion glanced at his daughter. “This is my daughter, Abigail.”
“My son, Kaede.” Meike indicated the man on her right, who bent his head to acknowledge them.
“It has been a long time since our last meeting.”
“Yes,” Meike said, an odd smile gracing her features. “I remember you were not yet Chief then.”
“I can only aspire to emulate my father. Time has treated you well, Meike.”
She laughed. “Demarion, the Dragon with the honeyed words. Some things do not change. Now, tell me why you called for a meeting. Rumors reached me that it has to do with the sudden scarcity of food and water.”
His face became grave. “A Phoenix woman I once knew foresaw a famine come upon the Adamaris. Signs she gave me have just come to pass. It will mean suffering and loss for us both if this continues.” He paused. “She claimed there is a way to end it.”
Meike raised an eyebrow. “I’m listening.”
“If our clans make peace. We end the fighting. The Adamaris has room enough for all of us.”
She fixed a hard look on Demarion, but he did not waver. Alethea felt a thrill of pride at her father’s gallantry.
“You are ambitious, Demarion,” she said finally. “This is an age-old conflict.”
“I am not proposing this out of ambition, but what I hope is wisdom.”
Alethea’s gaze drifted to Kaede and she was startled to find him watching her. He had a disconcerting stare, too, with his piercing eyes and grim mouth.
“I am not opposed to peace,” Meike countered. “But we cannot simply say the words and expect all skirmishes to end. That is not the world we live in.”
Demarion spread his hands before him. “I’m listening,” he echoed.
A thoughtful look came over her, and her gaze skated between Demarion and Alethea.
“Only a powerful union between our clans can overcome the decades of bitterness.” She tarried for a moment. “A marriage.”
Alethea heard the Dragon men stir and murmur, but all the sights and sounds around her grew dim as Meike’s words reverberated inside her. A marriage. She wanted to close her eyes and wake from the sudden nightmare, but sheer, desperate resolve kept her from sinking to the ground. She could not let Father down.
Demarion spared a quick sideways look at her. “A marriage,” he repeated. “I am not opposed either, but I will not give my daughter to a loveless union so readily.”
“Fair enough.” A mysterious, knowing smile crossed Meike’s face. “I propose this then: Kaede will accompany you to your village, if you are willing. They may have a period of courtship, and if the terms are agreeable to both at the end, we can proceed.”
Her father fell silent before turning to Alethea. “Abigail? Only if you are willing.”
She found his expression open and honest. This was not his political mask. He truly would allow her to make the decision and not begrudge it either way. Simultaneously moved and overwhelmed, she drew in a deep breath and searched her thoughts. With Abigail’s curse and the famine roaring to mind, the answer seemed clear.
“I am willing.”
“Excellent.” Meike turned to her son. “Kaede can negotiate any specifics with you in my place.”
Without a formal farewell, the Dragons and Sparrows saddled their horses and prepared to leave. Alethea felt everything happen in such a swift turn of events that she could hardly believe the significance of what they established. Possible peace. An end to a long, bloody feud. A looming courtship and marriage for her.
Alethea saw Rafa make his way towards her, evident concern in his eyes, but Kaede appeared first at her side without warning. He towered over her by nearly a head and smelled of fresh grass and leather.
Without a greeting, he turned toward her and spoke in a low voice.
“I know you are not Abigail.”