The knife gleamed in his hand as it caught the sun. He flicked his wrist and the blade flew straight into a thin crack between the boulders.
“The trick is control.” Kaede strode to the weapon and dislodged it easily, handing it to her. “You don’t need your entire arm; in fact, that will throw off your accuracy.”
Alethea nodded, feeling her palm grow damp. She had only ever used a knife in the kitchen before.
She narrowed her eyes at the rock cleft. Doubt clouded her concentration. Kaede made it look effortless, but the target was impossibly small. She bounced the handle between her fingers.
“Faith is half the battle. You don’t believe you can do it, you will fail.”
“Alright,” she mumbled, clenching her teeth, embarrassed he could detect her uncertainty.
“That lion is coming right at us!” Kaede exclaimed suddenly, closing in next to her. She could hear the muffled mischief behind his voice. “Save me! You need to hit him right above the jaw—”
Alethea snapped her wrist and sent the knife sailing without thought.
The tip pierced the crevice, wobbling slightly.
“Excellent.” Kaede turned to grin at her.
She blew out air, not realizing she had been holding her breath. “I didn’t think I would make it.” Alethea crossed her arms. “Don’t do that again.”
“Wild beasts don’t wait for you to be ready,” he said unapologetically. “Let’s take a break.”
Alethea sank to the ground, stretching her arms. It was their third day training and she felt her entire body ache. They had climbed rocky ledges, jogged long distances to build endurance, and practiced basic weapon techniques. She had never pushed herself like this before, but she still felt woefully unprepared for scaling the Adamaris.
Kaede pitched himself down beside her. He was a good instructor, lively and capable, but never condescending. While he still exuded the commanding aura that struck Alethea upon their first encounter, he balanced it with a good-humored disposition, and it no longer made her feel pitiful in his presence.
She could see why Abigail admired him.
“First time doing this, eh?” He tossed her a sideways glance.
“First time doing a lot of things.”
Like keeping secrets from my family.
They knew she was spending time outside the village with Kaede, but that was common in a courtship. Father seemed proud she bore it all so well. Mother was concerned—he was the rival clan’s next chief—but with Abigail’s fate and the famine to contend with, she spent little time fussing over Alethea. Rafa appeared to be avoiding her, spending more time with other young men in the clan. Like Abi, he had another world that Alethea was unacquainted with, and he withdrew into it.
She made a mental note to apologize for snapping at him after their meeting with Sparrow clan.
But no one could know Kaede was aware of her true identity. He would be labeled a severe threat and a target for assassination, even if her father wanted to protect him. Kaede, raised amidst politics and power struggles, knew this—they were bound together by mutual secrets, all of which, if uncovered, could lead to devastation.
“You’re doing well, Alethea.” He smiled at her, before a shadow fell over him. “Stars, if I were locked up in one place my whole life…I would have suffocated long ago.” Some dark and distant thought seemed to pull his mind away.
“Abigail too.” She shrugged. “It was all I knew, so I found it tolerable. You find your own world when you can’t reach the outside one.”
He shook off whatever reverie seized him. “Poetic,” he said, his usual lightheartedness returning. “I guess you had a lot of time to think.”
“I guess so,” she replied lamely.
“You like to paint?” he asked. “I saw the dragon by the window.”
“Oh, right,” she murmured, feeling self-conscious. “I was trying to draw our clan’s constellation.”
“It’s good—really good.” He seemed genuinely impressed. “We have a constellation too. I can show you sometime.”
“I never knew that.” Alethea looked at him in surprise, forgetting her awkwardness.
Kaede laughed. “Well, I doubt they include that in the Dragon education.” A conspiratorial glint flashed in his eye. “You’d need to keep it a secret.”
“I have a whole list of those now, anyway.” The wry tone sounded oddly unlike her, but the words fell out before Alethea could think.
He offered her a roguish grin. “Welcome to the outside world.”
They passed the first two weeks in similar fashion. When dawn broke each day, Alethea and Kaede saddled their horses and rode out into the mountain. Though terribly sore by the end of their hikes and lessons, she felt a settled satisfaction with her achievements. She could maneuver over terrain that once made her weak at the knees, handle a small blade respectably, and mount and dismount Jade with increasing fluidity.
She began to feel the effects of the famine slowly dull the life of the village. Abigail still lay unconscious, and Father received no word from his scouts. People grumbled against the clan leaders.
Alethea’s resolve hardened as she considered the circumstances. The moments she wanted to collapse and go back to hiding in her cabin grew more rare. It was easy to forget the stakes when she and Kaede were alone in the wild, throwing knives and testing themselves against the Adamaris. This was no game.
Admittedly, she hated showing weakness in front of Kaede too. Even an offhand compliment warmed her, and that added fire to her fortitude.
“At the risk of sounding like a traitor, I would recruit you to the Sparrow ranks if I could.” A smirk played at the edge of Kaede’s mouth.
Alethea flushed, hoping the dusk would disguise it. Sticky with perspiration and out of breath, they were riding back towards the village.
“Why, do your men want painting lessons?” she countered.
He threw back his head and laughed, the throaty sound echoing off the cliffs. “Even your wit has improved.” He shook his head lightly. “I’ve rarely seen someone make such progress so quickly.”
“I have motivation,” she replied quietly.
Kaede glanced at her. “Your sister.”
“My sister, my family, my clan…” Alethea felt the weight on her heart grow with each word.
They fell silent. As the Dragon village came into view, the last rays of sunlight lanced the rooftops. A faint silvery glow colored the cobblestone paths. It was suppertime, so the streets were quiet but golden lights burned behind windows.
A silent but sharp pain cut through her.
These are my people. This is my home.
Something hot burned in her chest and she felt tears sting her eyes. Gripped by a sudden, fierce loyalty to her clan, Alethea felt grim determination settle inside her like a rock.
“You can do this.” Kaede’s voice, level and assured, reached her. He paused. “We can do it.”
She nodded absently. “Two more weeks.”
Two more weeks left in the courtship agreed upon between the Dragons and Sparrows. Two more weeks before the clans thought she—or rather, Abigail—would marry Kaede and the famine would end.
Two more weeks for her to find the Phoenix and rescue Abigail.
“We can make the ascent next week. That leaves us an additional week, to be safe,” Kaede said. He turned his gaze towards her. “We haven’t thought about what to do once we find her.”
Alethea bit her lip, feeing doubt crash against her again. Surviving the climb to the top of the Adamaris and then locating the Phoenix were daunting enough tasks. Could she truly be bargained with? Would she be able, or even willing, to free Abigail?
She suppressed her misgivings. “We convince her to undo the curse, you and Abigail can marry, and the famine will be over.” The confidence and cheer rang false in her ears.
Kaede raised a brow, but if he was skeptical, he did not voice it.
“And then what will you do?”
She did not reply immediately, staring at the village again as it drew nearer.
“I don’t know,” she admitted.