Alethea shivered, moving nearer to the hot coals of the fireplace. The nighttime chill grew icy as the famine continued to ravage the mountain. She made no comment as the dinner servings decreased over the week, knowing they were faring better than most as the chieftain’s family.
A servant brought in a platter with four steaming mugs. The scent of fragrant herbal tea wafted through the room. She gathered around the tabletop with her father, mother and Rafa.
The ceramic cup warmed her frozen fingers. They drank in silence, listening to the wind howling outside.
The family tradition of gathering for tea in the evening was neglected when the curse took Abigail. Her father’s endless council meetings and her own courtship with Kaede continued to rob them of their time together. Alethea breathed in and tried to savor this rare moment, this pause in their headlong, frantic haste to salvage their normal lives. She relished the familiar scene wrapping around her, while simultaneously experiencing the nostalgic pang of Abigail’s absence.
“Alethea, your hands,” Ziva exclaimed, interrupting her melancholy thoughts. “You have blisters all over them.”
She set her mug down and slipped her fingers beneath the table. “Horseback riding,” she explained, feeling her face flush.
“You haven’t been going far from the village, have you?”
Ziva turned to Demarion. “Do you trust that boy? You know I have never liked Meike, and I find something terribly odd about her thinking up a marriage proposal—of all things—so swiftly.”
“Kaede seems honorable enough. You thought quite highly of his father, remember.”
“Who is dead,” Ziva said bluntly.
Demarion clasped her hand, appearing unperturbed still. “We cannot avoid all risks. I am doing my best.”
Alethea felt a strange swell of indignation over how they spoke of Kaede. She wanted to defend his character but suppressed the impulse. She trusted him, not only because he was unexpectedly kind and helpful, but also because he loved Abigail. She could not reveal that reality. Again, Alethea felt the burden of secrecy weigh heavily on her.
“What do you think of him, Lethe?” Rafa asked. With a start, she realized he had been studying her from across the table.
She inhaled and collected her thoughts. “I think he is trustworthy,” she replied. “He wants to end the famine, and in that, our interests are aligned.”
“He seems to have developed a deeper interest than that,” Demarion interjected, raising a brow at her.
Alethea could not tell if his comment was serious or jesting. “No,” she said, quickly and adamantly, “there is nothing more.”
Her insistence garnered skeptical looks from all three of them.
“If he truly cares for you,” her father began slowly, “I would not want to continue deceiving him.”
“You must,” Ziva said, her voice quiet but firm. “We cannot reveal Abigail’s curse to him.”
“And we cannot allow Alethea to wed him masquerading as her sister!”
“Then you should not have accepted Meike’s proposal from the beginning.”
A thick silence fell over them. Alethea could hear the blood thrumming faintly in her ears as she took in their heated words, lined with edges of veiled accusation. Father and Mother rarely disagreed in open, but she surmised this was not their first conflict on the matter. She looked across at Rafa, catching a pained look on his face, but he buried it quickly when he noticed her gaze. Alethea felt a sudden stab of loneliness.
Perhaps they have always hidden things from me, and from each other. How would I know? Locked away in a cabin, books were her teachers more than flesh-and-blood, and her experiences were only vicariously lived through the stories of others.
“What did you think would happen, Demarion?” Ziva’s voice exposed no bitterness, only exhaustion. “When you agreed to this courtship under a pretense, what good outcome did you foresee?”
“Nothing.” He paused, turning to look each of them squarely in the eye, and ended with his gaze fixed on his wife. “I wanted to end the famine. I did not know what to do, and I acted on instinct. I lost a daughter already to this—this curse,” he broke off, his voice quaking slightly, before continuing, “and I could not live with more blood on my hands.
“I thought little of the long-term consequence of maintaining the deception.” He turned his eyes now to Alethea. “I am sorry, for I gave little consideration to your conscience or heart when I allowed the burden to fall upon you.”
His words struck something deep inside her, and Alethea felt her breath tremble. She felt a swift and sharp longing to pour out the whole truth, to confide in them as her father had just done. But she thought of Kaede, of Abigail, of the clan conflict, and she suppressed the confession.
Another hard lesson—sometimes duty demanded discretion, over and against unbridled honesty.
“We are family. We bear the burdens together,” she said softly.
She meant the words with sincerity, though she felt a keen ache from what she left unspoken. Yet some burdens cannot be shared.
Demarion and Ziva both smiled at her, the former with affection and pride, the latter with a hint of sadness. Rafa, though, appeared distant and lost in other thoughts.
“Do you care for him, Lethe?” he asked suddenly. He glanced at all of them. “If you do—well, that should have some bearing on how to proceed.”
Alethea bit her lip and tried to mask the surprise and pang of betrayal she felt. Why would Rafa ask her that, so abruptly and openly before their family? The two of them had not discussed her relationship with Kaede at all; why did he assume she felt comfortable addressing it in front of her father and mother?
“I think we have become friends. But that is all, really.”
That was all she ever allowed herself to think around Kaede. Certainly, he was handsome and strong and good-humored, but she could not follow such a dangerous strand of thought to a forbidden conclusion. Any final outcome, to her mind, was intolerable, but one where they broke the curse on Abigail and the Adamaris, and where Kaede would become her brother-in-law.
“I am not sure he is deserving of even that,” he murmured, not to anyone in particular.
Alethea felt his comment directed against Kaede, but she suffered a blow from it too. Though she made amends for snapping at him after the meeting with Sparrow clan, Rafa still remained more withdrawn than before. She reasoned that her courtship, his added responsibilities in the family and clan, and the strain of Abigail’s condition explained their recent distance.
Rafa was not one to hold a grudge. Yet, he was also more private than she previously believed. He had never once suggested he had any special attachment to Abigail, and even after the curse took effect, he confessed nothing of his feelings to Alethea. She felt a trace of bewilderment and anxiety. The thought of not truly understanding him as she always thought sparked a sudden sense of fear.
“Let us remember that the fault does not lie with any of us,” Demarion interjected. “We do not have the power to curse or undo.”
“Only Sela,” Ziva mumbled.
Father’s expression darkened at the name and Rafa tensed. Even with the threat of the curse looming over their family her entire life, Alethea rarely heard them speak of her. She felt a sense of anticipation drum inside her veins. Her plans with Kaede were based on rough knowledge and vague stories from her father. Perhaps, this was an unlooked for opportunity to gather information on the mysterious woman.
“Have our scouts found any signs of Phoenixes on the mountain?” she inquired.
“No,” Demarion sighed, his shoulders falling.
“Then—” Alethea hesitated for a moment, but plowed on. “Why not go to Sela to reverse the curse?”
Rafa cast an odd look at her, and she felt afraid for a moment, wondering if her plans were clearly etched across her face. But he looked away again, with no sign of suspicion in his expression.
“Because she would never help us.” Vehemence cut through her father’s voice. “Heaven knows, she likely would curse us further.”
Apprehension gripped her ribcage with cold fingers, but an unexpectedly morbid curiosity dampened her fear.
“What happened to her?”
She watched her father’s features shift from irate to unreadable. A long pause followed, and Ziva threw a meaningful sideways glance at him.
Demarion blew out a breath and began. “When I was a boy, the Phoenix clan was already falling into turmoil, creating factions and using their spells against each other. Our people kept a distance from their conflicts, though Dragons and Sparrows both suffered collateral damage. Sela and I struck up an accidental but fast friendship. I hid it from my family, of course. She was a Phoenix, my father was Chief—” he trailed off, as if the reverie snatched him from present reality.
Alethea felt his tale begin to weave the scene around them. It was at once compelling and uncomfortable, especially as she noticed an eerie parallel with Abi and Kaede’s story.
“When her clan was nearly obliterated, I offered to take her in.” His gaze became focused again as he picked up the story. “It would cost me, but I could not leave her to die. She refused.”
“Because she was proud,” Ziva interjected. She glanced at her husband again. “And, because she would only accept his offer under certain circumstances.”
Pain shot through his eyes. “We were childhood friends. But I could not care for her the way she desired. We were coming into adulthood, and I loved your mother already.”
She almost felt a twinge of sympathy for Sela, but the image of Abi’s lifeless form wrung the empathy out of her.
“But how can she hate you for that?” Alethea stared at him.
“She did not hate me for that, not right away at least. She made her home at the top of the Adamaris, and I visited when I could. But I think the dark isolation twisted her mind—and God knows what sort of magic she was practicing.” He released a heavy sigh. “Last I saw her, she snapped, and years of bitterness poured out on me.”
Another silence came over them as Demarion’s story settled into their minds. Alethea contemplated the Phoenix’s life—her clan destroyed, love spurned, and nothing but a dark and lonely future stretched before her.
She felt the horror and sadness of it wash over her, but her heart hardened over what Sela did to their family. Did she need to thrust her tragedy onto another, particularly someone innocent like Abi?
“I am sorry for her, yet I despise her still.” The words fell out of her with quiet certainty.
“Well, she is the sort who can take your hatred but never your pity.”
But can she offer any? Alethea had spent her time agonizing over the harrowing trek up the Adamaris, but that faded into the background now as she thought of her final destination. She was gambling their fates upon Sela’s capacity for compassion.
It was a poor wager, but what choice did she have?