The ripples ceased.
The water went still.
The crowd fell silent.
Ean waited as his watch vibrated in his pocket to the passing tikkits.
The surface surged and Ember shot up out of the depths, dark hair streaming to either side of her tanned face, scales blazing like opal across her forehead, body cloaked in robes of brilliant white that shimmered even when soaked. She opened her eyes and gasped, and the Aothani elders holding her up in the water on either side swam her from the depths of the pool to the shallows where she could walk again. Elder HarGrennit received her there and helped her up, then turned to the crowd and cried,
“Welcome your new sister!”
The crowd cheered, tens-of-thousands of joyous voices, a roar greater than Sunfire Falls.
Ember flinched and searched the faces.
Her eyes found him, Trin at his side, Bethania nearby with her husband. She pulled her shoulders back and faced the others.
Ean remembered windows shattering, walls shaking, and a hurricane of shadows screaming as death pressed on his face and roared its hatred. Then silence, and those eyes opening and looking into his with a new stillness, a new gleam.
Elder HarGrennit lead Ember toward the lines of the Tavarins. Immilene and Lahnria fell in beside them, both in full dress armor, Immilene’s now bearing a small red circle with a silver cross at the gorget. Immilene whispered something to Ember and Ember smiled back at her. Brago kirped in Ean’s arms as they approached.
Ean held the kirtak out and Ember received him with another smile. He swarmed up onto her shoulders as she stepped in beside Ean. As Elder HarGrennit began to make his closing speech, Ean felt Ember’s hand grip his arm at the elbow.
Gently. Like it belonged there.
He stiffened and a drop of sweat rolled down his side under his shirt.
He glanced at her.
She was looking back, but looked away instantly.
Ean’s heart began to hammer.
Ember’s hand stayed.
Ahhtah, what in your name do I do now?
He thought of the message in his back pocket, received by his father that morning, telling them of an emissary from the Empire waiting at the Southwestern fortress town of Joan’s Shield. The emissary hadn’t said why he came, but there could be no doubt why. Empire forces had been prowling around the foothills all the way around Salshira’s borders, and scouts reported a full ten legions encamped just south of the Skyspike mountains.
What a request from the Empire would do to council support for Ember, Ean didn’t know. Tala’s report had brought a great deal of favor toward Ember. It had seemed that her joining the Akahllis would be the point that cinched her citizenship, but now…
He hadn’t told her yet. His Father and Bethania had both thought it best to get through the day’s main events before breaking the news of another challenge.
How would she react when he told her?
She was different now. But still Ember. Still so much the same.
And yet different.
He glanced at her again. This time she was looking at the crowds, Brago’s head obscuring her eyes as the kirtak looked with her.
Could she survive if the council ordered her out? What would happen to her out there?
Oh Ahttah, protect her. She has so much less to fight with now.
Her hand tightened on his arm for a moment. His heart beat faster in response.
And what… what would happen if she stayed? What then?
Brago sat up straighter, revealing Ember’s eyes again. She saw Ean looking and met his gaze.
She narrowed her eyes and glared at him. But then the firm line of her mouth cracked and her eyes twinkled.
Ean realized he wasn’t breathing.
Oh dear Kai. What am I going to do?