Alethea felt Kaede’s hand rest on her shoulder, warm and heavy. Subtle etches of pain cracked the otherwise stony guise he wore. His expression hearkened back to their first meeting, as he stood grim-faced beside his mother. Since their acquaintance was born, she could not recall seeing him with such a severe look, even in his somber moods. Like a war drum heralding battle, her heartbeat quickened, thrumming loudly in her ears.
“She cannot help us.” Kaede looked at her, but he seemed distant. His tone was strangely contradictory, half-commanding and half-beseeching. “Let’s go.”
The life of the girl you cheated. Was Sela intending to stir up strife between them and drive a blade between her and Kaede? Still, the Phoenix’s words rang with an uncomfortable degree of truth. And instead of outrage or dismissal, Kaede seemed suddenly withdrawn.
But she could not question him here. Alethea nodded dully, and he took her hand to lead her out of the cavern. She felt Sela’s gaze follow them, but she made no comment or motion to stop them.
When blue skies broke overhead, she drew in a deep breath. Kaede also paused, before beginning to pace on the ledge before her. With sunlight blazing at his back, he appeared to her a shadowy form, his shoulders bent and hands clasped behind his back.
Alethea watched him for a few moments, feeling the air escape her lungs more swiftly with each breath.
“Does she know something about you?” She asked quietly, but ached as the words fell out.
He saved my life today. Though her conscience accused her, she could not shake the nagging doubt formed from Sela’s words.
He stopped pacing and finally met her gaze. His stark expression burned away, replaced with sorrow.
“I have not been forthcoming about everything.” He sighed, casting his eyes to the ground. “I can tell you all, but I fear you will hate me.”
The words choked in her throat, but she spoke them calmly. “Tell me.”
He opened his mouth and closed it, as if testing his account mentally before speaking aloud. “I did not love Abigail,” he said finally, forcing his gaze up to hers. Though it felt like hot iron bars closing in around her, she could not look away. “When we met and I learned who she was, I thought to use it to my clan’s advantage. My mother encouraged our courtship. If I married the Dragon chief’s daughter, I would be in position to challenge your father and—” he broke off, before continuing, “It was not out of mere ambition, though I cannot deny that played a part. I wanted peace between our clans, and this was an opportunity to pursue to it.” A brief, defensive note entered his tone before it dissolved into contrition.
Alethea took his words in, waiting for the agony to break through her. In bracing herself for the inevitable wound, the shock of his revelation came and went, only grazing her fleetingly.
But she only felt numb and hollow, like someone reached inside and emptied her.
“Alethea.” His voice came to her through a fog, and an awful dose of reality struck her. “Please, say something.”
She lifted her eyes to his face but instantly turned aside. She faintly noticed the pain begin to bleed through her.
Kaede. My only friend outside of my family. I owe him my life. She thought of his friendly mockery and moments of unguarded honesty, his strong arms the only thing between her and a thousand foot death-plunge. How could he be untrue?
But all she said was, “So Meike will expose the curse to my clan and try to depose my father.”
He blinked in bewilderment before understanding dawned. “No—I was honest when I said she does not know the truth. She knows nothing of the curse or you.”
“How can I believe you?” The question sprung out coldly but softly as she felt her heart close towards him.
Kaede did not disguise his hurt. “I have no reason to lie to you now.”
“And what reason did you have to only betray us half-heartedly? There is neither kindness nor prudence in that.”
Alethea felt none of the hot anger she expected, but bitterness frosted over her feelings.
A passing struggle flashed across his face. “It was not out of kindness or prudence that I guarded your secret,” he murmured, “but I will only deepen the injury if I tell you.” He paused. “Alethea, I am sorry. I have no excuse or integrity to stand on before you. But for the little it is worth, I have been genuine in my dealing with you. Though I did not love Abigail, I admired her and sincerely wanted to remedy the curse. And I wanted your happiness.”
She absorbed his speech and felt a rock-hard resolve take shape in her mind. A knot began to form in her stomach, but she ignored it.
“Kaede, I cannot deny what you have done for me. If you mean those words, grant me a final favor.”
Wariness flickered in his eyes. “If I can do anything for you…”
Alethea unfastened the coal-colored pearl pendant around her neck. She held it out to him, and he opened his hand to receive it.
“Return this to Abigail. If you can spare her your admission, then spare her. And do not marry her.”
He reached out and clutched her shoulder in a vice-like grip. “You cannot go back there.”
“Do you know me so well, that you know my plan?” she murmured, half to herself, before fixing a soft, sad gaze on him. “Yet, I do not know you at all.”
Kaede did not release her. “Then, let me tell you what is in my heart and we can leave this cursed place.”
“No.” Alethea moved out of his grasp and closed his hand over the pearl, almost tenderly. “This is all I ask. Go home.”
“Alethea—” A dark storm brewed in his eyes.
“My life has been a tale cobbled together by the decisions of others. Do not take this choice away from me.”
His head bowed, and for a moment, she could envision the weight of the Adamaris pressed onto his shoulders. A blaze of empathy blew past her but it quickly faded as the dark cavern loomed in her mind. With a pang, Alethea knew Kaede could say nothing more to her, and such was her intent.
Perhaps she could not defeat the famine, or even save her family’s honor and position. Yet a small hope for Abigail’s fate still gleamed and called out to her.
She turned on her heel abruptly and strode into the cavern. Kaede made no move to stop her.
Sela remained by her makeshift fire when she reached the end of the dark corridor. The Phoenix glanced at her, a strange but knowing look in her face.
“Men are worthless, aren’t they?”
Alethea simply stared into the flickering flames, watching the orange light burst into swift and desperate dances before the shadows extinguished them.
“You stepped out of your shelter into a world of bloodshed and betrayal.” Sela rose to her feet slowly. “Perhaps you can understand why I seclude myself here.”
She met the older woman’s gaze. “There is bloodshed and betrayal, but there is also beauty. We see the world through the window of our heart,” Alethea echoed an old Dragon proverb. “If we are bitter, we will find bitterness everywhere. No cave or cabin can shield us from ourselves.”
“Have you come here to lecture me?” Sela merely raised her brow, but the mockery in her tone rang clear.
“You know why I’ve come.”
She seemed unsurprised, and beckoned Alethea to follow her. They went deeper into the cavern, where the fire provided only a faint light to guide them. Alethea felt her heartbeat quicken but the exhaustion from Kaede’s revelation and their arduous journey up the mountain dulled her fear.
When Sela came to a halt, she studied their surroundings. Alethea drew in a sharp breath.
Life-size paintings of flying creatures rose on the jagged rock wall before them—a dragon with its wings unfurled, a pack of sparrows soaring beneath it, and a red phoenix bathed in flames.
A lone spindle with a full wheel of thread stood under the vivid canvas of images.
“Every life, every clan, is a slowly-turning spindle,” Sela said quietly. “Unraveling in numbered days until the thread snaps. Life to death. Dust to dust.”
“Yet in between, we can fight so hard and bleed so greatly.”
Alethea felt their eyes meet in a passing moment of kinship. In some small measure, she knew the other woman’s pain of loneliness and rejection, and Sela knew that too.
“It is folly.”
The connection faded, and oddly enough, Alethea felt a small smile turn her mouth up. “That is the difference between us. I think it is glorious.”
They stood in silence before Alethea asked finally, “What do I need to do?”
Sela laid a hand on the spindle. “When the thread you spin runs out, you will take the curse, and your sister will return to life.”
Alethea knelt on the hard ground and touched the wooden axle. The thread felt rough and thick in her hands as she ran her fingers over it. A sudden memory charged through her—sitting in her cabin with Rafa days after they lost Abigail, confessing her anguish. The curse should have been mine. Look around you. It was already mine.
But now I have tasted a little of life. Alethea felt a wrench in her chest as she thought of the village’s cobblestone paths at dusk, the wild plains of the Adamaris, and even her adventures with Kaede. These things tugged at her heart, as if bidding her to hold on to life, to walk away from this madness.
No. This is for Abigail. The image of her sister’s face, the mischievous glint in her eyes and laughter, rose to mind and hardened her conviction.
Alethea pulled the thread out of the spindle.