Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter IX

Read [Prologue], [Chapter I], [Chapter II], [Chapter III], [Chapter IV], [Chapter V], [Chapter VI], [Chapter VII] and [Chapter VIII].

Chapter IX

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 And instead of outrage or dismissal, Kaede seemed suddenly withdrawn.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.

Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter VIII

Read [Prologue], [Chapter I], [Chapter II], [Chapter III], [Chapter IV], [Chapter V], [Chapter VI] and [Chapter VII].

Chapter VIII

He watched the rocky foothold break loose against her heel and opened his mouth to shout a warning. Alethea swung her arms out to grasp the protruding ledge above her but the reach was too far. Sweeping his gaze around their precarious station in a lightning second, Kaede made a small leap up the narrow incline until he was directly under her. He spread his feet and bounced his knees lightly, his hands splayed out like a small net in front of him.

She cried out as she plummeted backwards. Before he could react, Alethea slammed into him, her spine pressed against his palms. Pure survival instinct rushed through Kaede. He gripped her waist and propelled them both forward, away from the thousand-foot drop at his back.

His hand found a small crevasse and wrapped white-knuckled fingers around it. When he felt their weight stabilize, he leaned against the side of the mountain and closed his eyes.

Alethea’s arms were wound tightly around his middle, her breath coming in gasps. He touched her arm gently, trying to reassure, but felt his own body trembling like a leaf.

When she pulled away, he guided her hand to the same crevasse to steady her. She remained silent for a long moment, wide-eyed and pale.

Kaede mustered a smile, attempting to dispel the fog that followed their brush with death. “We live to Phoenix hunt another day.”

His voice seemed to shake her out of fear-stricken stupor. The sudden clarity in her gaze was almost unnerving.

“Kaede—” she began, and then faltered. “I—”

“Oh, please, no eloquent speeches.”

He felt a small thrill of pleasure and relief when her lips quirked upward. A measure of color began returning to her face.

“Thank you,” she said simply.

His chest throbbed. No one else could steal his ready wit with the simple authenticity Alethea possessed. Her dark hair fell like a messy frame around her face and he felt pain pulse through him as he considered how terribly close an encounter she had with mortality.

She is not like Abigail. He recalled his earlier, vague comment, which hung between them.

Her sister was a risk-taker and adventure-seeker. She could lead a clan with her spirit and courage. Kaede admired Abigail, certainly, and found her wit and daring a worthy match to his.

Alethea chased after none of that—peril, renown or glory. Yet she would brave hell and high water for those she loved. She can inspire men, and she does not even know. With a pang, Kaede thought even his mother could not do that, though she dedicated her life to the pursuit of prestige and influence among the Sparrows.

His instinct urged him to deflect her gratitude with a jest, but he resisted. “My pleasure,” he returned genuinely. In a lighter tone, he quipped, “I’m not brave enough to face the witch alone.”

She laughed, but he heard the quiver in her voice.

“Look. We are nearly there.” Kaede motioned at the ledge a few feet above their heads.

When they clambered over the final ridge, he sank onto a large rock, feeling the fatigue in his bones. The last segment of their climb was the most hazardous, and he had slept poorly the night before, turning over in his mind ways to shield Alethea from the inevitable sorrow she would endure. If they failed, Abigail would remain in her deathly state. If they succeeded, she would learn of Kaede’s deception—and a secret, selfish part of him almost hoped Abigail would not awake to expose his duplicity.

It was a terrible thought. Alethea, in all her simplicity and artlessness, put his character to shame.

“Kaede.” Her voice reached him in a hushed, strained tone.

He rounded a small bend to find her staring at the mouth of a cave, flanked on both sides by great stone monuments that resembled wings.

A breath caught in his throat. “This is what Demarion described?”

“Yes—Kaede,” she said, whirling to face him abruptly, “I have not told you…” she trailed off.

His chest tightened with mingled fear and anticipation. But the thought of his own deception pressed painfully in his mind and stirred up earnest empathy. “You can tell me.”

A glint of desperation flashed through her eyes.

“I am afraid we will fail,” she whispered finally.

Kaede did not know if it was her quiet voice or her honest admission that inspired a steely, protective spirit within him. He gripped her arm and felt her startled gaze lock with his. In the back of his mind, he vaguely hoped he did not overstep the bounds of propriety.

“While I stand and breathe, Alethea, she will not hurt you.” His voice sounded rough but sure in his ears.

She bit her lip and cast her eyes downward. “What of Abi?”

He felt a wave of helplessness but stifled it quickly. Kaede had no power over that.

“We can only try.” He sensed the weakness of his words, though Alethea still nodded and forced a grateful smile.

The inside of the cavern was dark, but a small light glimmered in the back, flickering like candlelight. A subtle but persistent dank smell wafted around them. Kaede rested his hand on Alethea’s shoulder, though he was uncertain if the gesture offered any consolation or simply made her uncomfortable.

A billowing shadow fell over the dim flame, darkening his vision entirely. He felt Alethea tense as they stopped moving.

“I have not entertained visitors since your father last came.”

Her voice was smooth and unthreatening but something in her tone made Kaede grow cold. The shadow fell away and the light suddenly glowed twice as brightly, revealing an older woman with gray hair, wrapped in a deep crimson cloak.

“Hello, Sela,” Alethea said.

Sela’s mouth curved up, though her smile carried no warmth. “You have Demarion’s eyes.”

Kaede gripped Alethea’s shoulder more tightly, but she hardly flinched. He sensed a quiet conviction and composure enshroud her.

“Your curse took my sister. I need you to undo it.”

Admiration and brief astonishment at her newfound courage pierced Kaede’s haze of anxiety like a spear.

“Ah, dear Abigail. She had the hot blood of the Dragons, like your father. You, on the hand—”

“How do you know these things?” Kaede broke into her musing.

She glanced at him for the first time, a haughty but penetrating look in her dark pupils. Wordlessly, she lifted her cloak off her shoulder and exposed a blood-colored Phoenix tattoo.

“The gift of foresight,” she returned. “Though,” she muttered quietly, “I did not anticipate a second daughter—” Her gaze returned to Alethea.

“Undo the curse,” Kaede repeated.

Sela did not respond, but rather moved further into the cavern, beckoning them to follow her. Painfully aware of how vulnerable they were—he suspected that swords and knives would serve no use here—he trailed after Alethea.

They arrived at a dead end in the back of the cave. A small fire burned on wooden logs haphazardly tossed together. If she plans to kill us…

“I cannot undo the curse.”

Alethea became very still, but a slow, steady fury began to burn inside Kaede, like Sela’s fire.

“Why not?” he demanded.

“Phoenix limitations. The creator of a spell cannot reverse it.” She paused, shifting her gaze intently from Kaede to Alethea. “I can only transfer it, or another Phoenix must conjure up an appropriate counter-curse.”

“A counter-curse?”

“Phoenix spells are binding. A counter-curse cannot simply reverse the original; it must make a new provision or develop an antidote. Few,” Sela emphasized, “are ever effective.”

Hopelessness and resentment churned in black waves within Kaede. “There are no more Phoenixes in the Adamaris.”

“What do you mean, you can transfer it?” Alethea asked suddenly.

Sela raised a thin brow at her. “I can remove the curse from Abigail and give it to another. Curses cannot be destroyed, but they can be passed along.”

Kaede felt a sick horror in the pit of his stomach as he watched Alethea’s face. She could not think—

“No!” He moved in front of her, half-shielding her body from the Phoenix, as if the effort might protect her from her own deliberations. He glowered wrathfully at Sela, his earlier qualms vanquished by revulsion. “You are wretched.”

The older woman appeared unaffected. “I do not make the rules.”

Alethea stepped out from behind him, touching his arm as she did. “What about the Adamaris? The famine still lies over the mountain.”

“I offered an remedy for that one. Peace between the clans.”

“We won’t have peace without Abigail!” Alethea exclaimed in a sudden burst of passion, her face reddening. “We won’t have peace without her marriage to Kaede.”

Sela did not respond right away, but turned to look at Kaede. He felt her hawk-like gaze blister him, peeling away his layers until the core of him lay raw and naked and bleeding. Cold dread filled him and his lungs closed as if he were underwater. For a brief moment, he wondered if she was casting a spell over him, but the dismay he experienced originated from his own, familiar demons.

“How fully she trusts you,” Sela murmured. “Odd, isn’t it? It was your ambition that the curse used, and yet here you are, asking for the life of the girl you cheated.”

His blood ran like ice through his veins. Alethea turned to him, perplexed, but with a hint of trepidation in her eyes that cut through Kaede.

“What is she talking about?”

Sela’s gaze did not move from him. “Now,” she purred, “who is the wretch?”

Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter VII

Happy New Year! 

Read [Prologue], [Chapter I], [Chapter II], [Chapter III], [Chapter IV], [Chapter V] and [Chapter VI].

Chapter VII

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.

“Thank you.”

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.”

“And Rafa?”

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.”

“What?”

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.

Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter VI

Read [Prologue], [Chapter I], [Chapter II], [Chapter III], [Chapter IV] and [Chapter V].

Chapter VI

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?”

“No, Mother.”

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.”

“Why?”

“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?

Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter V

Read [Prologue], [Chapter I], [Chapter II], [Chapter III] and [Chapter IV].

Chapter V

“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.

Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter IV

Read [Prologue], [Chapter I], [Chapter II], and [Chapter III].

Chapter IV

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.

Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter III

Read [Prologue], [Chapter I] and [Chapter II].

Chapter III

The world tilted and Alethea grasped Jade’s mane for support, her fingers tightening around the rough horsehair. She swallowed hard and tried to keep her expression clear of emotion.

How could he know? Bewildered, she struggled to find any telltale signs of her deception in their brief encounter so far. Nothing came to mind and fear clawed at her heart.

She could not give up so easily. Father’s reputation would crumble to dust if she did not fend off the Sparrow chief’s son.

“Who do you think I am?” she retorted, pleased to find a blend of confidence and disbelief in her tone. She sounded almost like her sister.

Kaede cocked his head and studied her. “Clearly related, but beyond that, I haven’t the faintest idea.” The light, quipping note in his voice unbalanced her.

Alethea attempted to scoff. “You have never met me, and you’re so certain—”

His laugh interrupted her. To her surprise, it was not harsh or scornful. The grimness melted from his features and his hazel eyes crinkled with amusement.

“I’ve been courting Abigail for weeks.”

Her breath stole away. Abigail’s mysterious suitor! It was him? She stared, lost for words, while he raised his brow at her in curiosity. Her mind raced with the implications but she saw Rafa approaching quickly, undisguised suspicion plain in his face.

Kaede acted more quickly than her. “I expect an excellent story later. I do love a good mystery, or clan cover-up.” He grinned. “But you owe me the truth.” He began moving away from her, before pausing for a moment. “Oh, and your real name.” He winked, as if this was all some great jest.

She blushed. Was he flirting with her? She had no experience with men, but through the swirl of confusion, felt a sense of indignation on behalf of Abigail.

Rafa appeared next to her. “What did he want?” His gaze followed Kaede to his horse, where he mounted smoothly and saluted the departing Sparrows.

“Nothing,” she mumbled.

He looked skeptical. “Lethe,” he said, lowering his voice, “don’t let him intimidate you. He’s the one coming to our home as a guest.”

“I know.” She suddenly felt tired of being coddled. “I can take care of myself.”

Rafa looked taken aback. “As you wish.”

He offered a hand wordlessly, which she accepted, and he gave her a boost onto Jade. When she was properly saddled, he left to mount his steed without further dialogue. Guilt pricked Alethea, but it was overwhelmed by her contemplation of Kaede and what to do about him. A dalliance with someone from Sparrow was strictly forbidden—until today—and Alethea could not suppress her frustration with Abigail’s imprudence.

Now, circumstances flung Alethea together with her sister’s suitor, and he knew the truth of her identity.

She glanced at Rafa, longing for a confidant. But this was her burden to bear, and Rafa would only grow increasingly bitter towards Kaede. Whatever she thought of him, he now held their family’s reputation in his hands, and she would need to make an ally out of him.

Alethea hoped he was a trustworthy man.

On the ride home, Father asked her to take a guest room in their main abode and offer her cabin to Kaede. Her small, familiar world slipped even further away, but Alethea put on a brave face and agreed.

The Dragon clan’s village felt like an oasis in the wild, spiraling Adamaris. Their cobblestone paths and timber homes were nestled in a small valley nearly halfway up the mountain. It felt strange to Alethea, having the liberty to wander through the alleys and watch the bustle of life close up. The sound of people shouting trades in the marketplace, the smell of salted pork and smoke, the sight of women in colorful attire skittering about—it felt so different watching it all from her window.

She kept her distance from people in case someone who knew Abigail spotted her. Maintaining this façade long-term was infeasible, and Father reassured her they would do everything possible to break Abigail’s curse soon and reveal the whole truth to the clan. But Alethea still felt anxious. Who knew if the scouts would find any Phoenix left in the Adamaris, let alone one who could cure her sister?

Alethea, I promise, we will save Abigail, and you will be able to live freely among our people.

That future seemed distant, almost impossible.

Instead, she focused on the present. She had to handle Kaede and their courtship. Her sister was a master of plotting, but Alethea needed to hatch a plan for the first time without the help of Abigail or Rafa.

Kaede could be a terrible liability or an asset. When she arrived at her old cabin to meet him, she was determined to turn him into the latter.

He greeted her with a disarming smile. “My favorite imposter! Are we going to resolve some of my questions?”

“Yes.” Alethea stepped inside, the comfort of home sweeping her up and bolstering her confidence. Without preamble, she said, “Abigail is my twin sister. She’s fallen under a curse and I need your help to undo it.” The words sounded foolish now, spoken aloud to the adept Sparrow chief’s son. But she forced herself to hold his gaze.

He blinked, shock spreading over his features. “A curse?”

“A Phoenix woman who hated my father cursed his children before we were born. She said his daughter would prick herself on a Rosa Rubiginosa and fall into a deathly coma. This was the sign that marked the start of the famine.” The memory of Abigail’s lifeless form flashed in her mind.

Kaede paled as a light dawned in his eyes. “A Rosa Rubiginosa,” he repeated.

“They were in your flowers.” Alethea worked hard to steer her tone away from accusatory.

“That’s why I haven’t seen her in a week,” he murmured, sinking into a chair. “She never told me of a curse.”

“Well, would you have continued courting her if she did?”

He glanced up, surprised. “You have a rather low opinion of me already, don’t you?” His tone was dry.

Alethea ignored his question. “Do you care for Abigail?” she pressed, feeling like she walked a thin line between urgency and desperation.

Something in his eyes flinched. “Of course.”

“Are you going to help me, then?”

Kaede looked at her carefully. “How did you escape the curse? And why are you posing as Abigail?”

She flushed, but knew he would not be placated with anything less than the truth. “We never knew which of us the curse was meant for. Mother could not hide when she was pregnant, but the clan did not know she bore twins. I was hidden away so at least one of us could be better protected.” Alethea exhaled. “Father took other precautions too, for Abigail’s sake. He destroyed all the briar roses in the area.

“But can we really overturn the course of fate?” She met and held his gaze, pausing for a moment. “I am playing the part of Abigail because a week ago, only four people knew of my existence.”

He seemed absorbed by her story, though a troubled look flickered over him. “If your clan knew the truth of the curse, Demarion may lose his position,” he surmised.

Alethea hesitated. She was loath to admit their posture of weakness aloud, particularly to Kaede. Yet what use was there to deny it?

“Yes.”

She tried not to think of Father’s disappointment if he could hear this conversation. Within a day, she had handed their secrets straight into the hands of a Sparrow.

He fell silent for a while, appearing to mull over the situation. Alethea felt like she was on needles waiting to see what he would say. Would he help her? Would he betray her? Their position gave the Sparrows a momentous advantage if they wanted to move against the Dragon clan.

But he loves Abigail, Alethea reminded herself. Surely, that would place him on her side.

“I’ll help you,” he said finally.

She felt a sudden weight lifted from her.

Kaede’s smile returned, charismatic and confident. “But you’ll need to tell me your name. I’ll simply call you dearly beloved in public.”

“Oh! I’m Alethea.” She blushed at his words.

“Then, Lady Alethea,” he said, with a theatrical flourish of his hands, “what do you propose we do?”

She drew in a deep breath. “Find the Phoenix who cursed Abigail.”

Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter II

Read [Prologue] and [Chapter I].

Chapter II

The curse should have been mine.

The next week passed by in a blur, and Alethea spent the time huddled in her room. She felt a hollow ache inside her. Rafa kept her company on most days, though they rarely spoke. He would bring news of the family and clan, which Alethea would take in with little reaction, before they lapsed into long silences.

Father and Mother told the other clan leaders that Abigail was ill and resting in their cabin retreat. They both bore it with remarkable grace, as far as Alethea could tell. She knew Father would need to handle clan politics and decide if he would continue to conceal the truth. A cursed Chieftain could not maintain his position. Furthermore, if the Phoenix’s prophecy proved true, a famine would soon set in, and he might need to contend with the Sparrow clan. All of this, in addition to accepting Abigail’s fate.

The curse should have been mine.

Her sister was beloved by the Dragons. Only four people even knew of Alethea’s existence, yet the curse passed over her and ensnared Abigail. What some might consider good fortune plagued her with guilt.

While she would never admit such cowardice aloud, she did not think the curse would be a terrible fate for her. While it was a tragedy to befall Abigail, who was full of life and vivacity, it was not such an awful alternative for Alethea. The outside world frightened her. There was almost an alluring quality to drifting in dreams for the rest of her life.

“Hey, Lethe.” Rafa knocked on the door. “Can I come in?”

He never knocked, or asked before. She knew he was treading carefully around her.

“Yes.”

She noted the dark shadows under his eyes and disheveled hair, but he still smiled bravely for her. Her heart throbbed with renewed vigor and she felt ashamed. Rafa cared for Abigail too, though he expressed no need for comfort.

“Anything new?” she asked, trying to infuse some warmth into her voice.

His expression turned bleak. “The crops are failing.”

“So it’s real.” She stared at the ground. “What’s Father doing?”

“He’s in endless council meetings, trying to convince them of the Phoenix’s prophecy. Or curse. He wants to meet with Sparrow, but there’s hard opposition from many of the clan leaders.”

“Why?” Alethea felt indignation stir inside her, and she clung to the sensation. It was the first feeling outside of dull aching she experienced since the curse took Abigail.

Rafa sighed. “There’s years of bad blood between the clans. Some have lost family in land skirmishes.”

Alethea thought of her father, valiant and noble in the face of trials. She felt a wrench in her chest. “I wish I could help,” she murmured. “Abi would know how to. If our places were exchanged—”

“Don’t say that,” Rafa interjected.

Her whole world was out there.” She gestured at the window, the words spilling out as she felt a sudden urge to make him understand. “It was bright, beautiful, romantic. She had everything. This is my world, Rafa. In here, with the four of you. It’s all I know.” She paused, and finally allowed herself to say the words. “The curse should have been mine. Look around you. It was already mine.”

Silence reigned as she and Rafa stared at each other, a current of shared pain passing between them.

“Lethe,” he said, quietly but firmly, “you can’t think that. Abi and your Father and Mother would never have wished it upon you.”

“You don’t understand.” She closed her eyes. “I would have taken it, if I could. Yes, because I love Abi, but also because I can bear it.” Unexpected anger coursed through her. “But now that witch cursed Abi and me in an even worse way, stealing her life and leaving me behind.”

“Then let us use it well, what she has left behind.”

Alethea looked behind Rafa to find Father standing there, a stern but kind look on his face. She felt a wave of embarrassment, wondering how much of her outburst he heard. At the same time, it was liberating to have said the words weighing on her heart for the past week—or longer.

“Father,” she greeted.

“Alethea, I have no right to burden you any further.” The shadow of grief spread over his face. “But I’m asking for your help.”

Abigail’s pearl pendant felt heavy around her neck. The cold, charcoaled-colored gem rested just above her heart, shifting as she bounced lightly on her steed.

Jade was Abigail’s horse as well. Rafa rode beside her at the start of their journey, using his hand to subtly guide her. To Alethea’s surprise and relief, horseback riding came naturally to her and she could handle herself after the first two hours.

“Demarion said you don’t have to do this,” Rafa whispered, when they drifted behind her Father and the half dozen leaders and guards accompanying them.

“I want to,” she said. “For Abi, and all the rest of us.”

Alethea tried to quell the fear battling for control of her, drinking in the new sensations instead: Jade’s formidable muscles moving beneath her, the relentless heat beating down on her skin, the smell of rock and shrubbery, and the craggy paths of the Adamaris circling the mountain.

So much could go wrong. Alethea was almost identical to her sister in appearance, but their personalities were worlds apart. Her father’s precarious position was a mere mistake away from ruin.

“I see them!” someone ahead of the riding party called.

They came to a slow halt and her Father waved for her to come to the front. She tried to present an aura of confidence as she rode up, privately grateful that none of the men had spoken to her or asked questions during their journey. They were the select few who knew her real identity after Father confided the truth to them. Loyal as hounds, he claimed, as he described these men. She heard the clicking of another pair of hooves, and knew Rafa brought up her rear.

“How are you doing?” Father asked.

“Fine,” Alethea replied. She sat up straighter and met his gaze. “I can do this.”

A genuine smile touched his lips. “I know. You are my Alethea Dragon-daughter.” His words warmed her. “Don’t worry. I will do all the talking. It’s simply tradition to bring the next-in-line for Chief.”

They began moving again. An elegant gray-haired woman led the other party and a young man with raven hair rode beside her. His high cheekbones and square jaw lent him a regal, commanding presence. Alethea felt small in comparison, a new wave of helplessness threatening to engulf her. She looked at her father and Rafa for strength, leaning on her father’s encouraging words.

“Demarion Dragon-Chief,” the woman said, dismounting from her steed in a fluid motion. The young man imitated her.

“Lady Meike of the Sparrows,” her father returned. He descended from his horse and bowed.

Rafa was already beside Alethea, helping her alight when Demarion glanced at his daughter. “This is my daughter, Abigail.”

“My son, Kaede.” Meike indicated the man on her right, who bent his head to acknowledge them.

“It has been a long time since our last meeting.”

“Yes,” Meike said, an odd smile gracing her features. “I remember you were not yet Chief then.”

“I can only aspire to emulate my father. Time has treated you well, Meike.”

She laughed. “Demarion, the Dragon with the honeyed words. Some things do not change. Now, tell me why you called for a meeting. Rumors reached me that it has to do with the sudden scarcity of food and water.”

His face became grave. “A Phoenix woman I once knew foresaw a famine come upon the Adamaris. Signs she gave me have just come to pass. It will mean suffering and loss for us both if this continues.” He paused. “She claimed there is a way to end it.”

Meike raised an eyebrow. “I’m listening.”

“If our clans make peace. We end the fighting. The Adamaris has room enough for all of us.”

She fixed a hard look on Demarion, but he did not waver. Alethea felt a thrill of pride at her father’s gallantry.

“You are ambitious, Demarion,” she said finally. “This is an age-old conflict.”

“I am not proposing this out of ambition, but what I hope is wisdom.”

Alethea’s gaze drifted to Kaede and she was startled to find him watching her. He had a disconcerting stare, too, with his piercing eyes and grim mouth.

“I am not opposed to peace,” Meike countered. “But we cannot simply say the words and expect all skirmishes to end. That is not the world we live in.”

Demarion spread his hands before him. “I’m listening,” he echoed.

A thoughtful look came over her, and her gaze skated between Demarion and Alethea.

“Only a powerful union between our clans can overcome the decades of bitterness.” She tarried for a moment. “A marriage.”

Alethea heard the Dragon men stir and murmur, but all the sights and sounds around her grew dim as Meike’s words reverberated inside her. A marriage. She wanted to close her eyes and wake from the sudden nightmare, but sheer, desperate resolve kept her from sinking to the ground. She could not let Father down.

Demarion spared a quick sideways look at her. “A marriage,” he repeated. “I am not opposed either, but I will not give my daughter to a loveless union so readily.”

“Fair enough.” A mysterious, knowing smile crossed Meike’s face. “I propose this then: Kaede will accompany you to your village, if you are willing. They may have a period of courtship, and if the terms are agreeable to both at the end, we can proceed.”

Her father fell silent before turning to Alethea. “Abigail? Only if you are willing.”

She found his expression open and honest. This was not his political mask. He truly would allow her to make the decision and not begrudge it either way. Simultaneously moved and overwhelmed, she drew in a deep breath and searched her thoughts. With Abigail’s curse and the famine roaring to mind, the answer seemed clear.

“I am willing.”

“Excellent.” Meike turned to her son. “Kaede can negotiate any specifics with you in my place.”

Without a formal farewell, the Dragons and Sparrows saddled their horses and prepared to leave. Alethea felt everything happen in such a swift turn of events that she could hardly believe the significance of what they established. Possible peace. An end to a long, bloody feud. A looming courtship and marriage for her.

Alethea saw Rafa make his way towards her, evident concern in his eyes, but Kaede appeared first at her side without warning. He towered over her by nearly a head and smelled of fresh grass and leather.

Without a greeting, he turned toward her and spoke in a low voice.

“I know you are not Abigail.”

Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter I

(Merry Christmas Eve! Enjoy.)

Read [Prologue].

Chapter I

Alethea traced the black specks carefully, her brush stroking then lifting off the wall with controlled force. She stepped back to examine her work. The outline of a wing unfurled on its white canvas, the tip grazing the edge of the window.

“Rafa,” she called.

A halo of black hair surfaced from behind a pile of cushions. Rafa ran a critical eye over her painting and a wry smile touched his face.

“It’s terrifying.”

“I finally made the curves right. It’s brighter tonight than I’ve ever seen.” She swept her hand towards the window.

Her gaze wandered outside to the night sky, traveling instantly to the most familiar constellation: the two large wings, the arched tail, and the trail of dense stars that father called the dragon’s breath of fire. If you use your imagination, he would say.

She loved the skies. Her family and clan had the stone mountains and green earth under their feet, but from her little lodge overlooking the village, she had all the heavens above.

“Is Abi visiting tonight?”

The hopeful note in Rafa’s voice was so faint she would have missed it if she knew him less. Alethea glanced at his expression, but his face was turned towards the ground.

“Yes.” She frowned, an anxious crease forming above her brow. “She’s late.”

Abigail collected enough admirers to stretch from the foot to the peak of the Adamaris Mountain. That, at least, was the common sentiment in the clan according to Rafa, Father and Mother. Abigail dismissed the notion entirely. Alethea could not help the occasional prick in her heart when the subject arose. Would she win as many suitors if their places had been reversed? Nevertheless, she felt ashamed of the slightest envy. Alethea loved her sister, and neither of them had chosen their lots in life.

She stole another glance at Rafa. But for him to develop any special interest in Abigail—

Surely, he knew an orphan could never inherit the Chieftain’s role.

“Your mother is worried. She said Abigail’s been wandering off to God-knows-where on the mountain these days.”

Alethea felt her chest clench. “Abi can take care of herself. She’s just adventurous.”

“Ah, right, the hot-blooded dragon spirit inside her.” He rose to his feet and made a flourish with his hands. “I think Demarion is secretly proud. Like father, like daughter. But Ziva…” he trailed off.

“She fears the curse is meant for Abi.” She kept her tone neutral.

Rafa stared at her, his indigo eyes crinkling. “Lethe, she fears it was meant for you both.

She heard the earnest empathy in his voice and flushed, looking away. Her family never showed greater favor to one daughter over the other. Abigail was their firstborn by mere moments, and tradition dictated that the eldest child of the Chief would inherit leadership of the clan. When Alethea arrived, a tiny bundle of flesh and bones, Father and Mother were delighted but afraid. Who would the Phoenix’s terrible curse fall upon?

Father could not conceal both children. The entire clan knew when Lady Ziva was with child. So he hid Alethea from the public, protecting at least one daughter. He built a cabin above the village for her, disguised as the family’s new private retreat. To the clan, Demarion Dragon-Chief and Lady Ziva bore a single daughter.

The oak double doors burst open, interrupting Alethea’s musing. Abigail barreled in, her dark hair flying wildly around her shoulders.

“Lethe, you will adore this tale,” she began without preamble, her voice echoing in the vaulted room. “Oh, Rafa, you will enjoy this too,” she added, spying him in the corner.

“Where have you been?” Alethea demanded.

“It’s not where I’ve been, but who I’ve been with.” Abigail winked, reaching into the fold of her mantle and producing a small bouquet of wildflowers.

“Is this another poor man’s heart you’re to break?”

Abigail waved off her sister’s sympathy for the unknown suitor. “This one is different. We met by accident, about a fortnight ago. I wanted to see the south side of the Adamaris, with the sea right below the cliffs. Some of the clan folk who ventured there said it’s the most beautiful at sunset.” She shrugged. “It was, albeit a terrifying climb.”

“Stars, Abi, Mother said not to go to the south face!” Alethea closed her eyes, and even the thought of the jagged heights sent a shiver through her.

“I know,” she grimaced. A shadow of guilt crossed her petite features but vanished swiftly. “Don’t tell her, please.” A mischievous gleam entered her eye. “But that’s where I met him. Just as the sun dipped out of sight, I saw his shadow on an impossible precipice.”

“Perfectly enchanting,” Alethea murmured in resigned agreement.

She felt a twinge in her chest. Alethea loved her stories, and though she feigned indignation at some of her tactics, she admired her sister’s daring spirit. Rafa said most the clan hailed her as a worthy heir to their father, regardless of whether she married.

Our fates fell in the right order. Abigail would not be able to stand a week confined inside the only walls Alethea knew her whole life.

And Alethea would not be able to brave the Adamaris or command the respect of the clan.

“We’ve been meeting since, every day if we can manage it,” Abigail continued. An unusually sheepish expression came over her. “I just didn’t want to tell all of you until I was more certain.”

Alethea felt a jolt. “Certain of what?”

“Well… he’s different,” she began, before breaking off.

Alethea followed her gaze to Rafa, who had stood silently since Abigail came in. His impish face appeared pale and vacant. She felt a brief pang of sympathy. She thought of Rafa as a brother—and Abi likely did as well. Still, they were not related by blood, and she could not fault him for developing feelings towards her sister. They were no longer children. It was Rafa, after all, who told Alethea of Abigail’s admirers and the high regard of the clan. She wondered for a moment how much his own appraisal colored those reports.

“Rafa, what is it?” Abigail stared at him, genuine concern in her eyes.

He did not respond, and Alethea scrambled for words to rescue him.

“He’s not feeling well,” she muttered.

“Sit down, then.” Abigail strode quickly towards him. “Stars, you look terrible—”

Drop those flowers!

His ordinarily tranquil voice boomed with power. Abigail froze in place, the bouquet still clutched between her fingers, and Alethea jumped, her eyes widening at him. Where did this fury come from? Abi mentioned a dozen suitors at least in the past! She wanted to shout her thoughts aloud, but knew she could not expose him like that.

“Rafa,” Alethea said slowly, “Please, calm down.”

He did not even glance at her. “Drop the flowers,” he repeated, more quietly but no less forcefully.

“What is the matter with you?” Abigail exclaimed, recovering enough to shoot an angry glare at him. “Are you jealous?”

Alethea bit her lower lip and looked worriedly at Rafa.

“There’s a briar rose in there, Abi,” he said, holding up his palm towards her. “Do not move. Just drop it.” He turned to Alethea now, whose face grew ashen. “You stay away too.”

“What?” Abigail stared, uncomprehending.

“It’s a Rosa Rubiginosa!” Alethea cut in. “The curse, Abi, drop it!”

But her sister appeared motionless now, her gaze entranced by the spray of flowers. “It can’t be,” she murmured slowly. She opened her hand to let the bouquet tumble out.

Alethea wanted to scream, but her throat constricted as a filmy pink flower caught on Abigail’s hand, a row of small thorns beneath its petals. Her sister drew in a painful breath and Rafa was beside her, his hand pressed against her back.

Abi!”

But her sister was unconscious already, a limp figure in Rafa’s arms. A small crimson stain appeared on the wooden floor beside the fallen wildflowers.

Beneath the Dragon Skies

Dear friends, readers and accidental visitors,

You know you’ve been a bad blogger when you can scroll down the first page and still see a post from last year. Oops. My excuse: grad school. My apology gift: a novella-length story. It’s a fairytale retelling (it should be obvious fairly quickly which one), and decidedly not Christmas-related. But I have the entire thing written and no plans for it other than having it take up hard drive space. There’s a Prologue + 10 installments, and I will not leave you hanging because again, its already completed.

I hope it adds some warmth and fun to your holiday season!

tpv9dh822va-stefan-stefancik

Beneath the Dragon Skies: Prologue

The yawning, rounded boulders rose above the cavern, sheltering its black entrance like stone wings. Demarion swung his left leg up the steep incline and thrust himself onto the last foothold. His breath came short and heavy. He leaned against a rock fissure and looked down at the impossible path snaking through the Adamaris Mountain.

The endless spiral of gray stones stared back at him, almost mocking with its winding and sudden cliffs. He shut his eyes against the vertigo and tried not to think of the return journey.

Turning to the cavern, Demarion caught a flicker of light. A fire burned at the end of the dark passageway. He stepped inside guardedly, his hand wandering to the hilt of his sword.

A familiar face withdrew from the shadows, her eyes vibrant behind the flames.

“Dear Demarion!” she exclaimed. Something false in her voice belied her smile. “So many seasons have passed without a visit from you. I was beginning to think you had forgotten me.”

He studied the woman before him and felt a quiet ache. Her familiar face recalled happier times, but he also discerned the acrimony that tinged the rim of her gaze.

“No, Sela,” he sighed, “I do not forget so swiftly. But your home is not easy to visit.”

Sela laughed and rose to her feet. He followed her as she drifted towards the mouth of the cave. The first hint of sunrise crept up the eastern skies in rich rose-gold shades.

“But the view is spectacular.”

“It comes with a cost,” he returned dryly. “You are steps away from a straight plunge into oblivion.”

She whirled to face him, her silver shawl billowing behind her. “There does not seem to be a place for me elsewhere in the Adamaris.” Her tone hardened. “I did not even merit an invitation to your latest celebration.”

An icy wind swept through him and a tingle of fear raced down his spine. He and Sela were friends once, in better and brighter days. Her seclusion was not entirely her choice; cruel circumstances drove her to seek refuge when the Phoenix clan fell into civil conflict, scattering most of their people across the mountain. Many died, for the Adamaris was an unforgiving place to those alone and without resources.

But her years in isolation made her volatile, and Demarion guessed the bitterness of her fate gnawed at her. He might have pitied her, but he knew she would despise it.

“I thought it unfair to ask a man to brave your heights for the sake of a festivity.”

“You could have come yourself.”

“Why do you think I’m here?” Demarion watched her carefully. “But it seems you have heard the news already.”

“I have my ways of finding out.” She slipped her shawl down her left shoulder slightly, and a dark red phoenix tattoo peered out. Her mouth curved into a half-smile. “My heartiest compliments to you and the mother. How is dear Ziva?”

Demarion felt his ire rise. “Do not pretend to care for her,” he snapped.

“Oh, Demarion. You think so little of me now.”

Her disdainful tone drove out his lingering fear, replacing it with hot anger. He bit his lip and tried to contain his temper, but her serene and insincere expression looked foreign. Whether it was the ravages of time or the cruelty of circumstance, he could find no trace of the high-spirited girl from his youth.

“It is not what I think of you, but what you are,” he murmured. “I have a clan, and a wife with child, depending upon me. Yet I risked this terrible climb for the sake of our old friendship. Have you no kindness or warmth left?”

She took a threatening step towards him. “You speak of kindness?” she hissed. “You speak of prizing an old friendship? You have distanced yourself for your own political gain. The Phoenixes are hated by all the clans.”

“I offered you a place among my people,” he rumbled.

“Years ago. But now you are Chief of the Dragons. How could you be seen as a friend to me?”

Her mockery cut like a knife through his fury. Demarion felt a still, strange sadness grow inside him.

“You do not know me, Sela,” he said quietly, this time without resentment. “I must go.”

He strode to the edge of the cave, about to begin his rocky descent, when she called out after him.

“Since you did make this dreadful trek to see me, I should return a favor.” She paused. “For the sake of our old friendship.”

Demarion felt his gut coil painfully. “No.”

Sela appeared beside him, her dark eyes haunting. “I merely wish to warn you. A famine is fast approaching the Adamaris. The greenery will die, food will be scarce—you can imagine the rest.”

He looked hard at her. “Why should I believe you?”

“You know I have the gift of foresight. Now, would you like to know how to end the famine?”

Demarion made no reply.

“Make peace with the Sparrow clan. The land cries out from the battle and bloodshed, with Dragon fighting Sparrow for control of the Adamaris.” Sela met his gaze. “How could you not tire from this ceaseless strife, Demarion?”

He felt the wrath surge inside him again as realization set in. “Peace will end the famine? Do not take me for a fool, Sela. This is not foresight. This is a curse!”

“A curse? You flatter me, to think I have the power to curse an entire mountain.” Her voice rang insincere.

“I know you are no stranger to curses.”

“No, I am not,” she mused, a distant expression overtaking her.

Demarion gave her a dark glare as he turned to leave, but she reached out and grasped the collar of his cloak. Immediately, his hand seized his sword and partially unsheathed it, the sound of metal ringing clear into the morning air.

She glanced down at the weapon and shook her head. “You distrust me so.” He loosened his grip, narrowing his eyes at her. “I was not finished. Given this formal breaking of our friendship, I ought to leave you with a parting gift.” Her tone remained calm but sounded eerily hollow.

“Sela, do not do this,” he raised his voice.

Caught in a trance-like state, she ignored him. “I will give you a sign to mark the start of the famine. When it is about to commence, your child will prick herself on the thorns of a Rosa Rubiginosa—your favorite flower, I remember—and fall into a deathly state, drifting in dreams until her mortal flesh fails.”

“No! Sela, you cannot!” Demarion’s anger transformed into horror.

“Oh, but dear Demarion,” she said, “I already have.”

“Undo this black spell!”

“I’m afraid I’m unable to. Perhaps another Phoenix could help you, but it seems you’re hard-pressed to find them in the mountain these days.” Sela looked at him coldly, releasing her hold on his cloak. “Give my greetings to Ziva.”

She vanished into the shadow of her home and Demarion fell against the stony ground, white-faced and trembling.