Ember stumbled to a stop in the deep woods behind the palace gardens, panting.
It would be alright. It would…
“Wait up!” Lahnria floated out of the sky and landed nearby. “You can be alone if you want, but we are not letting you clear out of sight again.”
Ember stared at her for a moment, then nodded. That did make sense. After the Prikenskrins the last thing she wanted was to get caught alone.
Lahnria huffed and walked off a ways to sit down on a rock and keep watch.
Ember stood up, then squeaked when Brago suddenly snaked between her ankles and kirped at her.
“Can’t everyone just leave me alone?”
She picked the kirtak up and let him take his perch on her shoulder. So many people wanting in.
“No,” Trin said.
Ember whirled and felt claws dig into the padded shoulders of her dress.
“I thought I told all of you I wanted to be alone!”
Trin flicked an ear dismissively.
“And, as your friend, I chose to ignore you. The solo act didn’t work so well for you before, and it’s not going to work now, either.”
So many people wanting in!
“Dr…” the word stopped on her tongue and Ember shook her head. “I just need to get my head in order.
Trin leaned back against the trunk of a pine.
“Empty it out and I’ll help you sort.”
The idea of dumping her head out on the ground was almost appealing, but all she could think of was the urge to get away.
“Mmhmm.” Trin stayed where she was.
Ember looked away from Trin and up at the sky. Clouds floated overhead, glowing in the afternoon sunlight.
“I can’t fly, Trin,” she said. “Do you have any idea what that’s like? I can’t fly anymore, at all, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, it even hurts to walk now when I’m in my true form.”
She dropped her gaze to her friend.
“If the Council kicks me out, I have no chance.”
Trin held her gaze.
“Ean is not going to abandon you, and the only way Father will send you away now is if you kill someone. The Isolationists aren’t going to get a two-thirds majority, so I think you’re pretty safe.”
Safe. Nothing was safe if the Emperor wanted it enough.
“And what about when the Emperor surrounds Salshira with fifty of his Fire Legions?”
Trin crossed her arms and gave Ember a flat stare.
“Then we all get to have a really exciting party.”
Ember clenched her fists.
“Thek, Trin. Your people don’t want a war. Not over one Garagran…”
“I’m still a Garagran! I have scales,” Ember flicked her own forehead, “and skin wings and… and that’s it. I’ve seen pictures, and I don’t look like Mekhol at all.”
“Looks aren’t everything.” Trin uncrossed her arms and stepped toward Ember. “You learned what Garagran means in Old Brajta. By definition, you are Alleji now.”
“But I’m not useful anymore. I can barely even scare the horses now.”
Trin’s gaze softened.
“You are so much more to us than that, Ember. We don’t care how useful you are.”
“Your people do. The councillors do. I’m a useless problem again.”
Trin gripped Ember’s shoulders.
“You’re my sister and my friend. Not a problem.”
Friend. Sister. Charity case.
Ember glared in Trin’s face for a moment, then snorted and turned away.
“What? Still angry that we aren’t tracking accounts on how much you owe us?”
“Yes!” Ember glared back at her for a moment. “Why shouldn’t I be? It feels like all I ever do these days is snap at people.”
“Today was an exception. Until now.”
“I see a lot of exceptions these days.”
“You don’t get it. I still want to rip people in two and bite the head off anyone who annoys me. I feel snappish and angry all the time and I hate it when you people ask me to spend my time on some stupid problem. Ean looks at me and all of a sudden I want to throw him out a window. The only person in the entire city that I’m not angry at half the time is your cousin Nanli.”
“You’re the worst.”
Trin leaned around Ember and gave her a look with her head tilted sideways.
Ember growled. But the growl failed. Trin was right.
Trin walked around in front of her and met her gaze.
“What’s your point, Ember? You get mad at people. So does everyone.”
Didn’t she see?
“Still. I get mad at people, all the time, still. I’m still the same… monster… as before, only now I’m broken and useless!”
“We aren’t going to…”
Really. Why wouldn’t they?
Trin narrowed her eyes at Ember.
“The Emperor is going to tear your country apart now that he knows I’m here,” Ember said. “Even if you drive him off, the cost is going to be terrible. I’m not worth that to you.”
“We’ll deal with that if it comes.”
Trin grabbed Ember’s shoulders again, but this time to give her a little shake.
“Ember, if any of us ever gave you the idea that living for other people would be easy, for you or us, or that everything would get better just because you follow Kai now, or than any given moment would make any sense at all, then they were wrong. It’s never going to be easy, but you’re family now, and we’re going to protect you. We’re going to protect each other. And we’re going to trust that somehow it all works out.”
Ember stared at her.
“You’re all crazy.”
“I know. It’s great, isn’t it?”
Ember’s shoulders fell.
Why me? Why did I get this? And why only now?
Her eyes felt wet.
No. No tears.
She wouldn’t lose it.
Ember grabbed Trin in a hug and squeezed.
Trin squeaked and smacked her on the back.
“Breaking my ribs!”