The conclusion. I hope you enjoyed, and thanks for following along! I have more posts in the works, so I won’t go radio silent for months again. 😉
Read [Prologue], [Chapter I], [Chapter II], [Chapter III], [Chapter IV], [Chapter V], [Chapter VI], [Chapter VII], [Chapter VIII], [Chapter IX] and [Chapter X].
The Sparrows said that the man who climbs the Adamaris once is a victor, and the man who climbs it twice a fool.
Kaede’s body ached, and the truth of that saying came to mind with sharp clarity. But a small, steady hope invigorated his worn limbs. While his last journey with Alethea filled him with dread over the outcome, he found a new core of strength this time. Now, they had a real, fighting chance at ending the curse. He clung to the fragment of faith Rafa inspired in him, unable to dwell on the possibility of failure.
With his thin, wiry frame, his traveling companion was adept at maneuvering the cliffs and making precarious leaps. Even though he underwent no formal training, Rafa demonstrated innate agility during their trek. Being fresh and well rested, he began pushing further ahead than Kaede, who felt challenged to keep up.
“Stars, I keep looking behind to see if Abi is following us.”
Kaede laughed. “I think Lord Demarion feared the same. He nearly placed her under lock and chain.”
“She will dare anything. That is who she is.” Rafa shook his head, but fondness warmed his words. He threw a sideways glance at Kaede. “All these years, and I never expected the same of Lethe.”
“It is not audacity. Not with her.” Kaede released a long breath. “She will sacrifice anything. That is who she is.”
“Mm. Perhaps they spring from the same foundation.”
Their conversation lapsed in and out of thoughtful silence. For the first time since they met, Rafa seemed open and genuine. Kaede bit back a smile—perhaps it had something to do with Abigail.
“I usually read the signs so well,” he muttered, half to himself, but he garnered Rafa’s attention. “I insisted to Alethea that you were in love with her.”
The expression Rafa wore made Kaede smirk.
“Well,” he returned after a moment, “we told Alethea that you were sweet on her.”
“Poor girl,” Kaede murmured, “everyone trying to tutor her, yet she knew best and hid it all in her heart.”
Rafa raised a brow. “But we were right.”
Kaede felt his face flush. Though Alethea’s state was horrific in every sense, the tragic shadow it cast made her family more than merciful towards his political manipulation. Abigail dismissed it without much misery, moved by the realization of Rafa’s longsuffering patience and steadfast love for her. Rafa, of course, could only be glad that Kaede did not ensnare Abigail’s heart. And the entire family hoped beyond hope that Kaede’s affection for Alethea would prove to be her deliverance.
Now, it is only Alethea. Will she be glad when she awakens? Will she despise me, let alone have any regard for me?
He swung his gaze in the same direction as Rafa. Among the dry, yellow shrubbery, small patches of green sprouted out of the soil.
“The famine!” he exclaimed. His breath caught in his throat. “Is it ending?”
A new thought came to him. Here they were, from three different clans, struggling together for one another’s survival. Could we be reversing that curse already?
When they arrived at the mouth of Sela’s cavern, they paused by silent consent and looked at each other. Kaede felt fear, hope and a hundred other unnamed emotions stir inside him. Only a few days prior, he stood in the same place and watched Alethea march to her fate, helpless to stop her, awash in his self-reproach and remorse.
In a surprising gesture, Rafa laid a hand on his shoulder. “Just think of her.”
Is that how he found his strength? Kaede suddenly imagined his companion alone in his room, poring over old Phoenix documents. In the swirl of chaos, he nearly forgot that Rafa’s life had just shifted dramatically in revealing the truth of his identity. What ramifications must he contend with at home after all this? But he followed through with all of his plans for Abigail’s sake.
“I do.” Kaede hesitated, but the memory of Rafa’s revelation encouraged him. “I fear your counter-curse will not work—because of me. My love is not as unfaltering as yours. I fear it’s weak and selfish, and I do not trust myself.” His thoughts turned to his mother suddenly. She was like that. Even with Kaede, she loved him as her son, but he was also a pawn in her political pursuits. I am too much like her.
“You are a man. Who among us can claim to truly love well?”
Rafa stopped him with a hard look. “In knowing your own weakness, you give me confidence.” His face softened. “I love Abi, but not perfectly. And I believe you love Lethe.”
Kaede soaked up his words like a dry leaf, willing for Rafa’s conviction to sink into him too. He nodded.
“Ready if you are.”
They took only a few steps into the cavern before Sela met them.
“You are a glutton for punishment.” There was a note of amusement in her voice. Kaede assumed she addressed him.
“We are here for Alethea, not you.”
“Ah, I see you brought a Phoenix friend. And last time you were saying there were no more in the mountain…” Her gaze swept over Rafa, who stood rigid and unflinching beside Kaede. “Ironic. Demarion could never rid himself of the Phoenix disease, could he?”
“We are not here to waste words with you,” Rafa said. “Where is Alethea?”
She gestured towards the back of the dimly lit cavern. “If you think you can reverse the curse, I certainly will not stop you.”
Kaede felt his heart drop a little. He expected Sela to show more resistance, perhaps even violence, to keep them from Alethea. Her calm, flippant composure shook him. Did she simply not care if they lifted the curse? Or was she hiding something else?
If the same thoughts crossed Rafa’s mind, he covered it well. He strode in the direction she pointed, and Kaede trailed behind him, grateful for his resilience.
Sela’s voice, soft yet haunting, followed them. “She has a golden heart. Better than her father’s. Certainly better than you deserve.”
The words echoed through him like a small bell in a cathedral. He shivered.
“She is trying to unbalance you,” Rafa murmured.
But she is also right.
They found Alethea swaddled in thick blankets, lying beneath a massive canvas of flying beasts—dragons, sparrows, and phoenixes. A spool of thread, unspun from a spindle, spilled out beside her.
She wore a peaceful expression, one Kaede had rarely seen since meeting her. He recalled, even in her gaiety, she bore an air of melancholy, burdened by the cares of her family and clan. Without her worries and guardedness reflected on her face, she looked regal.
Kaede knelt beside her. In his periphery, he caught Rafa closing his eyes and murmuring something unintelligible.
Returning his attention to Alethea, he clasped her cold hands to his gently. The rest of the world seemed to fade into the distance, and even Sela’s lingering words lost their impact. Please, come back from wherever she trapped you. Please do not hate me—stars, I would give up the chieftainship, anything, for you to come back to me.
Compelled by his fervor, he leaned in and kissed her forehead. Her face was also cold like marble. His chest ached.
He felt a slight pressure on his fingers. Alethea stirred.
Tears stung the back of his eyes.
“Kaede?” Her voice was quiet and wondering.
He only gripped her hands in response, not trusting his voice. Rafa came nearer, a smile breaking across his face, but he kept a tactful distance.
“How did this happen?”
“I will explain everything.” Kaede swallowed. “But tell me you do not despise me.”
She did not even hesitate. “How could I?” Alethea said softly, almost musically. And for the first time, he felt her dark eyes invite him in, revealing her heart.
Something inside him soared.
What followed passed by Kaede in a blur. Rafa came over to Alethea and they embraced. Kaede faintly heard him scolding her—lightly—for her brashness, and then offering a quick summary of the last few days’ events. Her post-slumber stupor quickly wore off, and she punctuated his retelling with exclamations of surprise and delight. Kaede merely listened, dazed and enshrouded in sweet relief.
Eventually, Rafa came and touched his arm. “We need to go.”
He nodded, and as he rose to his feet, Alethea said, “Sela simply allowed you both to come in?”
Kaede glanced at her. “It seemed… she did not think you deserved such a curse.”
She fell silent, pondering that. Then she looked at him again, almost shyly. “So, you did not love Abi, but—” she broke off, blushing.
“I set my sights high, milady.”
Rafa glared at him. “Watch your words.”
They laughed, and Kaede felt a genuine camaraderie snake around them. He and Rafa helped Alethea to her feet. There was no sign of Sela as they made their way to the cave entrance, and his spine tingled slightly, wondering where she hid in the shadows. He quickened his pace, but Alethea stopped them midway.
She turned around. “Sela,” she called.
Alarmed, Kaede grasped her arm. “What are you doing?” But Rafa shook his head briefly, and he reluctantly released her.
“My father offered this to you once. I ask again. Will you come with us?”
They waited, but nothing in the darkness flickered. Only the echo of her quiet, sure voice returned to her. Kaede reached for her arm again, this time in support.
But Alethea smiled at him, the same, slumbering peace he witnessed earlier spread across her face.
“Let’s go home,” she said.