“Thank you for your hospitality, Lord Demarion. As I told Abigail, I will pay a visit to my mother, inform her of our progress, and return in two days.”
Demarion bent his head in acknowledgement. “Give my greetings to Meike.”
Kaede bowed, and then tossed a small smile at Alethea, who stood behind her father. Her lips curved upward reluctantly and she allowed a moment of secret understanding to pass between them before he met the Dragon chief’s gaze again.
“I look forward to rejoining you here. Spending time with your daughter is a pleasure.”
Alethea flushed and Demarion raised his brow, a glimmer of surprised delight. Kaede’s mouth twitched in amusement.
Did he think he only had one charming daughter?
“We look forward to your return,” Demarion replied. A diplomat to the end. “Ride safely.”
The sun was high when Kaede saddled his steed, Eagle, and galloped out of the Dragon village. It was about half a day’s ride to Sparrow clan, so he calculated arriving by dusk. As the passing landscape hurtled by, gray cobblestones turned into giant boulders and unpaved paths. The once green shrubbery that decorated the Adamaris was now yellow and bare. His fingers tightened around Eagle’s mane.
Guilt rolled over him.
If Father was still alive, he would have honored any treaty he made, even one with the Dragon clan. He was an upright, blunt man with an inextinguishable spark of humor.
Mother always said integrity would lead to his downfall, but he died of poor health before he could fulfill her prophecy.
Kaede felt the wind rush against him and sting his eyes. He wished the gust would sweep his troubles away with it, but only felt the growing knot in his stomach as the Sparrow village drew nearer.
When he first met Abigail on the south side of the Adamaris and learned her identity, Meike was pleased. She encouraged him to woo the Dragon chief’s daughter and win her hand in marriage—and eventually, leverage the union to usurp control of her clan. While Abigail hid their courtship from her family, Kaede told his Mother everything.
Abigail was spirited and kind, and though he felt pangs of remorse for his deceitfulness, he thought of the far-reaching significance. If he could assume leadership of both clans, the Dragons and Sparrows could establish peace. Did the means to achieve that truly matter? He won over Abigail with his easy charisma, something he inherited from his father.
Certainly, Kaede thought bitterly, he had inherited his mother’s ambition too.
It was all going according to their plan. Even when the famine came and Demarion agreed to consider a contract through marriage, Mother thought fate had handed certain victory to them.
But then she threw everything into a spiral.
She had the same green eyes and chestnut hair as her sister, but the resemblance ended there. After their first meeting, Kaede thought she would be trampled underfoot by the political pressures and her family’s instability, like a timid mouse first let out of its cage. But there was a layer of steel beneath her meekness.
I think even she did not know that.
A cool breeze circulated and the sun dipped below the horizon. He put aside his thoughts as the Sparrow dwelling came into view. They did not have the wood and brick abodes that made up the Dragon village but large huts instead, scattered on a slightly inclined slope. Their clan was a nomadic one for years before they settled on the west face of the Adamaris.
One of the men outside caught sight of him and yelled a greeting. Some of the Sparrows hurried over to assist him.
As he dismounted, they led Eagle away to graze with the other horses. Kaede made his way to Meike’s hut alone, feeling a heavy weight rest on him.
“Son!” She stood up and clasped his strong arms.
“Mother.” He embraced her.
She pulled away to study his face and he felt her piercing gaze burn against his. Suddenly, he was like a young boy again, his culpable thoughts exposed before her.
If his expression betrayed anything, Meike made no comment. “Sit and eat. The men brought in good game today.”
Mother set a steaming bowl in front of him, filled to the brim with wild rice, vegetables and spiced chicken. Kaede inhaled the heady scent of mountainside herbs.
“Hardly seems like a famine here,” he quipped.
“Ah, we manage. Sparrows are talented hunters.” Meike’s voice swelled with pride. “Besides, you and the Dragon chief’s daughter will save us, won’t you?” A scornful smile turned the corner of her mouth.
“Should we make a mockery of a famine?” He tried to keep his tone light.
“Nay, just a mockery of their charade.”
Startled realization fell over him. “You don’t believe the famine will end.”
“Sa! No,” she muttered.
“But Demarion’s story—”
“—Was nonsense.” She threw a critical look at him. “We have not encountered a Phoenix on the Adamaris in years. Where did he meet this woman? And what signs did he receive to indicate the start of the famine?”
The food turned tasteless in his mouth. “I don’t know,” he mumbled, trying not to think of the striking, Dragon twins.
She appeared deep in thought. “We unbalanced him with the marriage proposal, so he likely has no trickery there. But I can’t discern his motive for suddenly desiring peace between the clans.”
“Perhaps it is simply as he said. Demarion strikes me as a straightforward man.”
Meike stared at him. “Do not tell me you have come to trust them.” Kaede looked down at his bowl, but she pressed on, a sudden earnestness in her tone. “Son, Demarion knows how to charm. Fair words can disguise a foul heart.”
The irony of her speech stabbed him but he held his tongue.
“The Dragon clan has been an oppressive heel since we settled on the Adamaris, long before your birth.” She reached across the table and gripped his wrist tightly. “Kaede, do you hear me?”
He thought of the stories Alethea told him on their daily escapades. She was taught that the Dragons were the first to make the Adamaris their home. When the Sparrows and Phoenixes came, they provoked them and seized land wherever they could, often by violent means. For innumerable years, unrest and conflict drew sharp, bloody lines in their clan history.
“Are we better, though?” He met her gaze. “They have wronged us, yes, but we have wronged them too.”
She fell back against her seat, fury and pain on her face. With her gray hair twisted artfully behind her, Kaede became sorely aware of how tired and old she looked. She wore shadows under her eyes and her forehead creased with lines.
“I did not send you there to bring home their lies.”
Her words were quiet but cutting. Kaede felt them sink into him like a slow blade.
“I want peace, Mother,” he said urgently. Again, like a young boy, he ached for her approval. “I simply want to leave the past behind us.”
Meike appeared unmoved. “Is this love?” she scorned.
Unexpected anger stirred within him. “Do you spurn love as an absurdity too?”
“You are like your father.”
Disappointment reverberated in her voice, but Kaede wondered if he imagined the trace of wistful nostalgia mixed in.
“I am with you, Mother,” he said, reaching out for her hand. Encouraged that she did not pull away, he continued, “Trust me to do what is right for our people.”
“You no longer want to take control of the Dragon clan,” she sighed.
“I want peace,” Kaede repeated.
She raised her brow at him. “And what of Abigail? Have you confessed how you have deceived her, played on her affections?”
Conflicting emotions swirled inside him. He thought of Abigail, hanging over the chasm of death. Though it was out of ignorance, he had given her the offending flowers. And she remained assured of his mutual affection for her before the curse fell. If Alethea’s plan worked, he would be forced to confront her with the truth.
Alethea. He felt a pang in his breast when he thought of her. Failing Abigail shamed him. But failing Alethea—the thought crippled him inside.
A part of him longed to share his quandary with his mother and seek her advice. But she would not share his concern for Alethea. If she learned the truth of the curse, Kaede shuddered to think what she might plot. Meike valued the prospering of the Sparrows far above the lives of the Dragons. One girl certainly could not win her sympathy and halt her determination. That knowledge burned a bitter hole inside him.
“So you have not.” A tone of knowing satisfaction ran through her voice.
“I will make it right.”
Kaede infused his words with confidence in spite of his misgivings. He would make it right. For his clan, for Abigail, and for Alethea. There was nothing else he could do.