The world tilted and Alethea grasped Jade’s mane for support, her fingers tightening around the rough horsehair. She swallowed hard and tried to keep her expression clear of emotion.
How could he know? Bewildered, she struggled to find any telltale signs of her deception in their brief encounter so far. Nothing came to mind and fear clawed at her heart.
She could not give up so easily. Father’s reputation would crumble to dust if she did not fend off the Sparrow chief’s son.
“Who do you think I am?” she retorted, pleased to find a blend of confidence and disbelief in her tone. She sounded almost like her sister.
Kaede cocked his head and studied her. “Clearly related, but beyond that, I haven’t the faintest idea.” The light, quipping note in his voice unbalanced her.
Alethea attempted to scoff. “You have never met me, and you’re so certain—”
His laugh interrupted her. To her surprise, it was not harsh or scornful. The grimness melted from his features and his hazel eyes crinkled with amusement.
“I’ve been courting Abigail for weeks.”
Her breath stole away. Abigail’s mysterious suitor! It was him? She stared, lost for words, while he raised his brow at her in curiosity. Her mind raced with the implications but she saw Rafa approaching quickly, undisguised suspicion plain in his face.
Kaede acted more quickly than her. “I expect an excellent story later. I do love a good mystery, or clan cover-up.” He grinned. “But you owe me the truth.” He began moving away from her, before pausing for a moment. “Oh, and your real name.” He winked, as if this was all some great jest.
She blushed. Was he flirting with her? She had no experience with men, but through the swirl of confusion, felt a sense of indignation on behalf of Abigail.
Rafa appeared next to her. “What did he want?” His gaze followed Kaede to his horse, where he mounted smoothly and saluted the departing Sparrows.
“Nothing,” she mumbled.
He looked skeptical. “Lethe,” he said, lowering his voice, “don’t let him intimidate you. He’s the one coming to our home as a guest.”
“I know.” She suddenly felt tired of being coddled. “I can take care of myself.”
Rafa looked taken aback. “As you wish.”
He offered a hand wordlessly, which she accepted, and he gave her a boost onto Jade. When she was properly saddled, he left to mount his steed without further dialogue. Guilt pricked Alethea, but it was overwhelmed by her contemplation of Kaede and what to do about him. A dalliance with someone from Sparrow was strictly forbidden—until today—and Alethea could not suppress her frustration with Abigail’s imprudence.
Now, circumstances flung Alethea together with her sister’s suitor, and he knew the truth of her identity.
She glanced at Rafa, longing for a confidant. But this was her burden to bear, and Rafa would only grow increasingly bitter towards Kaede. Whatever she thought of him, he now held their family’s reputation in his hands, and she would need to make an ally out of him.
Alethea hoped he was a trustworthy man.
On the ride home, Father asked her to take a guest room in their main abode and offer her cabin to Kaede. Her small, familiar world slipped even further away, but Alethea put on a brave face and agreed.
The Dragon clan’s village felt like an oasis in the wild, spiraling Adamaris. Their cobblestone paths and timber homes were nestled in a small valley nearly halfway up the mountain. It felt strange to Alethea, having the liberty to wander through the alleys and watch the bustle of life close up. The sound of people shouting trades in the marketplace, the smell of salted pork and smoke, the sight of women in colorful attire skittering about—it felt so different watching it all from her window.
She kept her distance from people in case someone who knew Abigail spotted her. Maintaining this façade long-term was infeasible, and Father reassured her they would do everything possible to break Abigail’s curse soon and reveal the whole truth to the clan. But Alethea still felt anxious. Who knew if the scouts would find any Phoenix left in the Adamaris, let alone one who could cure her sister?
Alethea, I promise, we will save Abigail, and you will be able to live freely among our people.
That future seemed distant, almost impossible.
Instead, she focused on the present. She had to handle Kaede and their courtship. Her sister was a master of plotting, but Alethea needed to hatch a plan for the first time without the help of Abigail or Rafa.
Kaede could be a terrible liability or an asset. When she arrived at her old cabin to meet him, she was determined to turn him into the latter.
He greeted her with a disarming smile. “My favorite imposter! Are we going to resolve some of my questions?”
“Yes.” Alethea stepped inside, the comfort of home sweeping her up and bolstering her confidence. Without preamble, she said, “Abigail is my twin sister. She’s fallen under a curse and I need your help to undo it.” The words sounded foolish now, spoken aloud to the adept Sparrow chief’s son. But she forced herself to hold his gaze.
He blinked, shock spreading over his features. “A curse?”
“A Phoenix woman who hated my father cursed his children before we were born. She said his daughter would prick herself on a Rosa Rubiginosa and fall into a deathly coma. This was the sign that marked the start of the famine.” The memory of Abigail’s lifeless form flashed in her mind.
Kaede paled as a light dawned in his eyes. “A Rosa Rubiginosa,” he repeated.
“They were in your flowers.” Alethea worked hard to steer her tone away from accusatory.
“That’s why I haven’t seen her in a week,” he murmured, sinking into a chair. “She never told me of a curse.”
“Well, would you have continued courting her if she did?”
He glanced up, surprised. “You have a rather low opinion of me already, don’t you?” His tone was dry.
Alethea ignored his question. “Do you care for Abigail?” she pressed, feeling like she walked a thin line between urgency and desperation.
Something in his eyes flinched. “Of course.”
“Are you going to help me, then?”
Kaede looked at her carefully. “How did you escape the curse? And why are you posing as Abigail?”
She flushed, but knew he would not be placated with anything less than the truth. “We never knew which of us the curse was meant for. Mother could not hide when she was pregnant, but the clan did not know she bore twins. I was hidden away so at least one of us could be better protected.” Alethea exhaled. “Father took other precautions too, for Abigail’s sake. He destroyed all the briar roses in the area.
“But can we really overturn the course of fate?” She met and held his gaze, pausing for a moment. “I am playing the part of Abigail because a week ago, only four people knew of my existence.”
He seemed absorbed by her story, though a troubled look flickered over him. “If your clan knew the truth of the curse, Demarion may lose his position,” he surmised.
Alethea hesitated. She was loath to admit their posture of weakness aloud, particularly to Kaede. Yet what use was there to deny it?
She tried not to think of Father’s disappointment if he could hear this conversation. Within a day, she had handed their secrets straight into the hands of a Sparrow.
He fell silent for a while, appearing to mull over the situation. Alethea felt like she was on needles waiting to see what he would say. Would he help her? Would he betray her? Their position gave the Sparrows a momentous advantage if they wanted to move against the Dragon clan.
But he loves Abigail, Alethea reminded herself. Surely, that would place him on her side.
“I’ll help you,” he said finally.
She felt a sudden weight lifted from her.
Kaede’s smile returned, charismatic and confident. “But you’ll need to tell me your name. I’ll simply call you dearly beloved in public.”
“Oh! I’m Alethea.” She blushed at his words.
“Then, Lady Alethea,” he said, with a theatrical flourish of his hands, “what do you propose we do?”
She drew in a deep breath. “Find the Phoenix who cursed Abigail.”