Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter XI

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].

Chapter XI

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?

“Kaede, look!”

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?”

“But—”

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.

The end

Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter X

One more installment after this one. Enjoy!

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

Chapter X

Sacrificial, unflinching love—what other counter-curse could there be?

He pushed the stack of crinkled parchments aside, burying his face in his hands. Could it be so simple? It seemed sensible. Only an effective counter-spell or curse transfer might save her, and a transfer demanded the same selfless love on the receiver’s part.

A desperate, almost frenzied euphoria set his blood humming. I will need the right words, and a true heart. 

Rafa reached for the top parchment sheet again, his eyes flying over the ink symbols.

Loud footsteps pounded down the hall. He opened the drawer beside him swiftly and threw the papers inside as Demarion surged through the door.

“What is it?” Rafa rose to his feet, alarmed at his countenance.

“It’s Abigail,” he said, and Rafa’s heart leaped into his throat, “she’s awake!”

What—?

“Ziva is with her now. Hurry!” Demarion was already turning away, gesturing for Rafa to follow him. His legs numbly complied, carrying him along. “I—I don’t know how long it will last, and how the curse could make such a provision.” He stopped abruptly, flinging an unguarded, fearful look at Rafa. “I am afraid it is a cruel trick of Sela’s.”

I have not cast a counter-curse yet! How could she awaken? Dread mixed with hope coursed through him. He remembered reading that poorly crafted curses could weaken over time until they lost all power.

He suppressed that strand of optimism. Phoenix lore was ancient and complex, particularly concerning the mechanisms of magic. While Rafa had gathered what surviving documents he could find, his knowledge remained pitifully limited.

She was sitting upright in her bed when they arrived. Ziva was coaxing hot broth into her mouth when her eyes found him and Demarion. She pushed the spoon from her lips.

“Rafa!” The familiar high pitch and brightness in her tone sent a thrill through him.

“Abigail,” he whispered, his voice suddenly hoarse. He felt paralyzed in place, uncertain if he should move nearer but unable to tear his gaze away, fearing that the curse would reclaim her again.

Her glance flitted across each of their faces, amusement coloring her expression. “You all look terrified I’ll faint away again.”

Ziva seized her hand. “How do you feel?”

“Fine, Mother,” she replied, half-reassuring and half-exasperated. “I feel as well as I did on my last day awake.”

“What happened? When you were unconscious?” Rafa asked, finding his voice.

“Nothing,” she murmured. “It was a dark, dreamless sleep. Sometimes I knew I was under a curse, but I was not afraid. It was like being in a cage, imprisoned but peaceful because there was nothing around to harm me.”

Demarion stepped over to her bedside and touched her arm. “You are home now. The cage is gone.”

“I know.” She beamed. “Where is Alethea?”

Her question jolted Rafa. He looked at Demarion—why did he fetch him, but not Alethea, when Abigail awoke? A troubled look crossed the Dragon Chief’s face and Rafa felt a tremor in his chest.

“I could not find her. I assumed she was out in the village with Kaede.”

But there was no sign of her yesterday either. Rafa grew accustomed to seeing less of Alethea, given her courtship with Kaede and the bourgeoning tension between them, but it was odd to go without a glimpse of her in so long. A strange, foreboding premonition began to breed in his mind.

“Kaede!” Abigail exclaimed. She flushed as their gazes all returned to her.

“The Sparrow Chief’s son,” Demarion explained quietly. “Much has happened while you were sleeping.”

Uncharacteristic concern fell over Abigail’s face like a shadow. “Tell me everything.”

“You need to rest first,” Ziva insisted.

“I have done nothing but rest for however long I slept!”

Rafa could not suppress a brief smile at her restless and impatient spirit. She spied his expression and turned an imploring look to him, as if she found a sympathetic opening.

“When the curse took you, a famine fell over the Adamaris too, like the Phoenix prophesied. Alethea posed as you and we went to negotiate with Sparrow clan for peace. They proposed a courtship followed by marriage between Kaede and Alethea.”

Abigail drew in a sharp, painful breath, her eyes fluttering shut. Demarion reached over and gripped her shoulder in distress.

“Abigail!”

She held up her hand. “No, I am fine. It’s simply—oh, Lethe, I am sorry,” she murmured.

Rafa shared an anxious look with Demarion and Ziva. “We can continue the story another time,” he decided. “We should find Alethea.”

As if in response, a servant appeared in the doorway, short of breath and flushed from running.

“Chief.” He bowed. “We tried to stop him, but Kaede insists on coming up.”

Demarion’s brow furrowed. “I will see him, but we cannot meet here with Abigail. Is Alethea with him?”

“No, Chief.”

Rafa felt the ominous portent grow in his mind. Was this another rudimentary Phoenix instinct, like the one he experienced when he sensed something awry with Abigail’s flowers? Demarion instructed the servant to hold Kaede in the guest room downstairs until he could meet the Sparrow chief’s son. The servant left in a flurry. Suddenly, Rafa noticed Abigail’s expression grow pale and frantic.

“Abi—” he began, but was interrupted by the growing sound of footsteps. He stood up in alarm, but Kaede was already in the doorway.

His garments were soiled and despite his broad stature and handsome face, the dark circles under his eyes and unkempt hair considerably marred his features. He looked at each of them swiftly before his gaze settled on Abigail and visible horror entered his eyes.

Rafa moved to stand in front of Abigail, though he knew no physical shield could force Kaede to undo the sight he had seen. If he tells the truth to Meike… 

“Kaede,” Abigail choked, assaulted by tears.

Kaede leaned against the doorpost, his back bent as if the strength went out of him. “Stars, she did it.” His eyes closed.

Demarion was on his feet now too, and all of them looked from Abigail to Kaede. Rafa felt they stood on the cusp of some terrible realization and he reached for a nearby bookcase to steady himself.

“You know each other?” Demarion demanded.

“Father,” Abigail began, a pleading note in her voice, but stopped when Kaede dropped to his knees before them.

“I am to blame, Lord Demarion. I met Abigail before the curse fell and we began courting. Thus, I saw through Alethea’s masquerade as her sister—”

Ziva gasped, whitening. “Demarion!” Her husband moved to her side and drew a protective arm around her before fixing a stern, unforgiving look on Kaede.

To his credit, the Sparrow did not flinch. “Please,” he said quietly, holding up his hand. “I have more to say. I confronted Alethea immediately.” A distant look overtook him as an unwitting smile crawled up his face. He glanced at Demarion. “She is stronger than you think. She laid the whole truth before me, trusting in my loyalty to Abigail. I agreed to help her. My mother does not know any of this.”

Rafa’s initial agitation began to ease, but another slow, blade-like pain spread through him. So he was the suitor that enthralled Abigail. He could not deny the stir of envy in his heart. He never trusted Kaede, even if he won Alethea and the rest of the family’s faith. It was vain and selfish, but he could not help disliking the man even more now, in spite of his good deeds.

Demarion was kneeling down beside Kaede. “What is there to blame you for then? You have handled this more nobly than me.”

Kaede could not look at him. “I do not know how to say this.”

A tense silence fell over them until Kaede rose and stepped to Abigail’s side. He pulled a pendant out of the folds of his cloak and slipped it into her palm.

She stared at it. “My pearl!” Perplexed, she glanced at him. “Why do you have it?”

Sudden understanding crashed down on Rafa like merciless waves. He let out a strangled sound and moved towards Kaede, thrusting a trembling finger at him.

“You let her take the curse.”

His words dropped like a heavy hammer in the room.

What? What are you speaking of, Rafa?” Abigail exclaimed.

Kaede’s silence confirmed Rafa’s suspicion. “Phoenix curses cannot be undone.” Each word felt dry and dreadful on his tongue. “They can only be counter-cursed or transferred. You took Alethea to see that witch!”

“Is this true?” Ziva cried.

The Sparrow only bowed his head. “Yes. We scaled the Adamaris and found Sela. She said the same thing about curses. Alethea insisted on transferring it. I could not convince her otherwise because…I failed her earlier. She told me to respect her choice, to go home and return Abigail’s pendant.”

Crimson agony burned through Rafa, but it felt more like regret than anger. “Why did she not even confide in me?” he murmured to himself.

Demarion, Ziva and Abigail all appeared stricken by the revelation.

“Sela must know this cruel twist cuts even deeper,” Demarion said. “To have both my daughters suffer, and Alethea to go willingly…”

Rafa glared at Kaede. “How could you let her?” Helpless fury mounted within him. “Why did you not take the curse for Abigail, if you love her—”

“Rafa,” Demarion cut him off, admonition in his eyes. Even now, he was still a Chief.

“Her sacrifice was needless!” he exploded, ignoring the warning. “I found a counter-curse!”

All eyes turned to him. “What?” Demarion asked, registering disbelief.

He jerked his sleeve up to reveal his bare forearm and the red phoenix emblazoned there.

“You have been searching the Adamaris for Phoenix,” he said quietly, “not knowing you took one into your care many years ago.”

The silence grew thick enough for a knife to cut. Rafa could sense, keenly and painfully, the spectrum of emotions splattered across each face—disbelief, wonder, a hint of fear, and sadness.

Abigail found her voice first. “Did you always know?” she asked, and he felt a rush of gratitude for her gentle tone.

“No. I thought of myself as a full-bred Dragon since Demarion found me.” He met the Chieftain’s eyes briefly. “A few years later, I began to develop unusual instincts, having vague premonitions and heightened sensitivity to trouble. Then my clan mark formed, and I knew.” Rafa glanced at the phoenix tattoo, recalling his quiet terror. “I scoured for documents and stories to learn about my…abilities. It was hard to find things, but my motivation grew when Abigail was cursed.”

“Oh, Rafa.” Ziva’s eyes crinkled with compassion. “You should have told us.”

“How could I?” he murmured. “You were cursed by a Phoenix.”

Demarion’s hand came down hard on the table. “You think we would have judged you by her actions?”

“No. But someone in the clan would, once news spread. The Chieftain’s family, adopting a Phoenix by mistake?” Rafa looked at him levelly.

They became silent again, and he could imagine this startling revelation settling into their minds, becoming a part of the fabric of their lives. He felt a twinge of distress as he watched them wrestle with their new reality. Though he had prepared for this moment ever since Abigail fell unconscious, it came more suddenly than he expected.

Kaede, while similarly shocked by Rafa’s outburst, accepted it more easily. He did not need to consider years of secrecy, and he returned them to the matter at hand.

“You said you found a counter-curse. Can you use it for Alethea?”

Rafa closed his eyes and exhaled. “It will not work. I designed it for Abigail.”

“Why?” Abigail demanded. “What is it?”

It seems today is the day for laying all secrets bare. 

“Apart from transferring the curse to another, I think there is only one viable counter-curse.” He paused. “A love that binds two lives together, for better or worse. A love that will bear anything for another. In some ways, this demands more than taking on the curse in another’s place. It is that, and more. Such love is the only thing powerful enough to restore life.”

Their gazes burned into him, particularly Abigail’s, as understanding dawned over her.

“Oh,” she whispered quietly, and words seemed to elude her. A deep blush crawled over her face.

“And here I thought—” Kaede began, before breaking off, shaking his head with incredulity.

Rafa looked at him, girding himself for a verbal onslaught. He had done no less than confess his heart for Abigail in front of her and her suitor.

And yet, Kaede did not appear enraged or protective. He had expressed no affection, or even relief upon finding Abi awake. Rather, he had seemed almost horrified…

Then, in a final twist to the day’s events, Kaede looked at him with the first glimmer of hope and said, “Perhaps your counter-curse will work.”

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.