Happy New Year!
They came to a halt on the edge of the Dragon village. Alethea turned around for a final, lingering look at the low-rise cottages and cobblestone paths. She drank in the sight, struck by the sudden awareness that this may be her last view of home. To her surprise, the realization did not make her afraid, merely wistful.
The morning air was crisp and cold, but the cloudless skies suggested a hot day ahead. Jade snorted from beneath her and stamped the dirt impatiently, breaking up her melancholy contemplation. Kaede, beside her on Eagle, waited quietly. She caught his gaze and flushed, noting the empathy in his dark eyes.
“You decided not to tell them,” he said.
Alethea shook her head. “They would never let me go. But—” There is no other way. She swallowed the rest of her words. She did not need to emphasize their desperate plight.
“But I still think we should follow through,” she finished instead.
“I hope so.” Kaede furrowed his brow for a moment, but a smile quickly broke across his face. “Now is the time for second thoughts, if you have any,” he quipped. “After this, we must have ironclad wills.” His glance strayed up the Adamaris.
Father’s story leaped to mind. He was so certain Sela would only harm them further. The thought sent a shiver spiraling through her but she quashed it mercilessly. The time for doubts was long past. Abigail and her people were paying the cost with each passing day.
“Then let us put the iron on now.”
She withheld the new insights on Sela from Kaede. Alethea struggled with enough misgivings and she found his self-assured strength indispensable. She dreaded that any dent in his confidence would make her own collapse entirely.
A small part of her also feared he would abandon their plan if he learned everything she knew.
“Spoken like a noble warrior.” His mouth curved further up.
Her face warmed. Though she had grown used to Kaede’s dramatics, which were often half-mocking yet strangely sincere, she had not mastered the art of responding in kind.
By silent consent, they turned their steeds towards the winding path ahead. The first part of their journey would be familiar, as they followed their usual route away from the village. But they would need to leave their horses behind when they rounded the south face of the Adamaris, where the jagged trail became too narrow for the beasts. Kaede had said the view from there, which overlooked the sea, was nearly worth the peril. That did little to ease Alethea’s nerves.
They had planned for a two-day journey up the mountain, hoping to find a suitable place to make camp for the night. She could not imagine sleeping without a bed or a roof, suspended between the cliffs and the stars. Casting a sidelong glance at Kaede, who rode comfortably on Eagle, she wished she could find an equal reservoir of courage within her.
“It will take two days for the ascent,” he echoed her thoughts. “Four days in total, if nothing goes awry. Your family will notice your absence.”
“I know.” It pained her to think of their imminent anxiety. “But it will be a small, forgivable thing if we succeed.”
A sudden, troublesome thought crashed into her. “Does your mother know?”
“What?” His gaze flashed towards her.
Apprehension tightened her stomach. “My family knows nothing,” she repeated. “What about your mother? When you returned home a few days ago, did you tell her—anything?” Alethea shrugged helplessly.
With the turmoil of the curse and famine, she had not even considered what Kaede might share with Meike during the days he was gone. They had established their alliance on a mutual love for Abigail, and as friendship budded between them, Alethea grew more convinced of his dependability. But their entire agreement and relationship occurred apart from Meike’s knowledge. Last time they met, the Sparrow Chief believed that she was Abigail, and that she would marry her son.
Was the bond of trust she built—or imagined she built—with Kaede enough for him to protect Alethea from his own mother?
Something in his eye flinched for half a second, but it passed quickly and his features softened.
“No. I said nothing.” Perhaps reading the unease in her face, he continued with unusual earnestness. “Alethea, she does not even know you exist. She thinks I am still courting Abigail, so of course, I could not tell her anything of this journey.”
She nodded slowly, blowing out a silent breath of relief. An uncertain but genuine smile touched her lips.
He returned a somber smile, which transformed into his customary smirk a moment later. “Hence, no one knows where we are or what we are doing. Adventure awaits, milady.”
His hint at the clandestine nature of their operation stirred up a vague sense of guilt in regard to Abigail. This is for her though, Alethea reasoned. Besides, it was simply Kaede’s personality that made him incapable of drawing a line between jesting and flirting.
“I like adventures better between the pages of a book,” she murmured, almost more to herself.
He chuckled. “Well, if we pitch off a cliff to our deaths, we will teach them the true meaning of taking your secrets to the grave.”
It was a morbid joke, with her family behind them and the Adamaris’ spiraling trails ahead, but she still coughed out a genuine laugh. Kaede turned a surprised look on her that morphed into a grin.
“By the stars, you are not the same girl I first met.” His tone revealed a blend of amusement and admiration.
Alethea flushed at the memory. “I was posing as my sister,” she pointed out.
“Yes.” His gaze strayed into the distance, as if the same recollection absorbed him. He paused for a moment before his eyes found hers again, a strange light in them. “You are nothing like her.”
Perplexed, she opened her mouth and closed it again. Kaede did not give her time to ponder, as he quickly looked away and urged Eagle forward, leaving Alethea to trail behind him, wondering at his words.
They left Eagle and Jade at mid-morning when the path bent sharply and narrowly up. Alethea felt her knees tremble and she encountered a moment of terror at the sight before them, her legs immobilized like stone. But Kaede came behind her with a steady hand on her back. He said nothing, but simply stood beside her until the panicked haze passed and she began moving forward.
She felt grateful, and oddly, unembarrassed. He made no comment and expressed no concern, but she sensed his silent protectiveness. With the thin incline forcing them to proceed in single file, Kaede tramped behind her. He did not push for speed or ask after her, but he kept close proximity and Alethea felt assured that he would catch her if she made a wrong step. The knowledge made her more fearless.
As they climbed, the air seemed clearer but thinner. When she would chance a look downwards, she felt vertigo sweep over her. Alethea recalled staring out at the peaks of the Adamaris from her old cabin in the village, awed by how they stood like jagged gray pillars piercing the skies.
Now, she was at their mercy.
Signs of the famine existed even at these heights. Once green copses and shrubbery at the wayside were burnt yellow.
If we do not undo the curse on the mountain, Abigail will be the last one alive in the Adamaris!
The terrible thought seized Alethea. By its dark magic, the curse on her sister sustained her without food or water. She looked the same as the day the curse took her.
But if the famine persisted… they would all die, except for Abigail. She would hang in that haunted chasm between life and death, alone in every way.
Alethea shuddered at the idea and felt renewed adrenaline churn through her veins.
She kept her contemplations from Kaede, presuming he battled his own private demons and did not need hers to join the fray. He bore the same burden for Abigail, and he still had to contend with his mother and clan politics.
“Ready?” his voice broke into her reflection at the same time his hand gripped her shoulder.
For what? Alarm ran through her, but the words died on her tongue as they rounded another bend and the sea unfurled below them.
Her breath stole away from her lungs. The white-crested waves crashed tirelessly against the cliffs, sending sprays of salt water dancing into the air. She traced the rhythm of the waves out farther and farther until her sight failed. On the horizon, a soft golden light rubbed the edge of the sky.
“Your next painting, perhaps.”
She shook her head. “I could never do this justice.”
An almost sacred silence fell over them. Alethea drank in the vision around her, forgetting the curse, the famine, Sela. Her world, which seemed so rich inside the Dragon village, felt like a trifling thing before the vast ocean.
When the moment passed, Kaede pointed to a dip in the path ahead of them. “That widens into a level ledge behind the rocks. We can make camp here tonight.”
Relief made her breath hitch in her throat. She simply nodded.
Dusk descended swiftly as they rolled out their blankets and ate a dry, meager dinner from their packs. Alethea’s entire body ached from the strain of their hike, but she also felt an unexpected thrill rush down her spine. In a small way, she began to understand Abigail’s yearning for adventure.
“Do you miss her?”
Kaede looked at her. “Abigail?” He grew quiet. “Yes. Though sometimes I wish I never met her. I triggered the curse.”
Alethea heard the bitter edge in his voice. So these are your demons. She nearly forgot it was his flowers, but his words drew her back to that fateful night in her cabin. The image of Abi crumpling like a doll in Rafa’s arms played vividly again in her mind.
“You should not blame yourself. It would have happened some other way.”
He nodded, but changed the subject. “Your family seems well, in spite of all that has happened. You are closely knit.”
Did she imagine a hint of a longing in his tone?
“There has been tension.” Their last gathering sprung to mind. “But we are close. Abi’s fate cut father and mother deeply, though they try to hide their pain.”
Alethea started. “What of him?” she asked, a little too quickly.
“He is close with you too.” Kaede spoke vaguely, and he did not meet her gaze.
Does he know? She reasoned the possibility away. Even she had no idea of Rafa’s affection for her sister until, strangely enough, the day the curse took her. Though Rafa acted aloof around Kaede during his stay with them, he surely would not suspect it was because of Abigail.
“He is like a brother to us—both of us. He was an orphan boy, and Father found him wandering outside the village shortly after we were born.” An unwitting smile turned up the corner of her mouth. “He came home and asked mother, ‘How would you like a son, without enduring nine months of agony?’”
Kaede laughed at the story, but she could tell his mind was elsewhere.
“Well, though I cannot tell Rafa, I am sorry I have made a mess of things for him.”
He stared at her for a moment before his face broke into a genuine grin, his usual charm returning with a twinkle in his eye.
“My dear, I forget you spent your life holed up in a cabin! If you do not see it, I should not spoil his secret.”
What—oh! He thinks Rafa is in love with me!
“No,” she managed, “You have a wild imagination.”
Unconvinced, he shrugged and a roguish smirk cut across his features. “Believe what you would like. They say ignorance is bliss.”
“You are intolerable.”
“And you are quite charming when you mount a spirited defense.”
His rapid rejoinder, a mixture of light mockery and unguarded honesty, robbed her of all possible retorts. Alethea felt the blood rush up to her face and a warm sensation spread in the hollow of her chest, followed by a wave of self-reproach.
He means nothing by it. It is simply his way of speech. He loves Abi, and heavens, he thinks Rafa loves me.
“We should rest soon,” she said abruptly, turning to smooth out her blanket rolls.
Something unreadable flickered in his expression, but he merely nodded.
“As you wish,” he said gallantly.