The golden grasses of the Taleen plains spread out far below and away, glittering in places with the tributaries that fed the wide green stripe of the Emral river as it wended South and East into the sandy dunes and scrubby hills of the Athaln Desert on its way to pour into the South Channel and the Vohl Ocean a thousand ten-felds away. Focusing her eyes on one of the nearer waters, Ember was certain she could make out the white speck of a river barge, tented on the top to keep the sun off the barge men and their cargo.
Probably on their way down to Whestruhl, the capitol of the Empire, located on the delta formed where the Emral and the Palgen rivers met before the sea.
Perhaps whatever force tore down this rising of the Skahllian Empire would finally burn that city to the marshy ground and salt the ashes so the Garagrans couldn’t resurrect it again.
Or not. There were probably many people there who were nothing but people, going about their days, completely undeserving of her anger. It was hard to be kind when everything hurt, even her tail.
What do you think of the ordinary people who work in a city that burns down other cities, Kai? What do you think of the people who put shoes on their soldiers and forge tips for their spears?
Or… words that she had already read surfaced, lists of other cities and kingdoms that had long since turned to dust for what they did. The first two Skahllian Empires had not fallen without cause.
Ember sighed and stretched her wings, then thought of leaving the cave where she had spent the three previous nights. She knew she had to set out, to escape or be captured, but she couldn’t imagine how. Without any distraction, each step was agony. Perhaps she should have kept the horse and gone as a human, but she hadn’t wanted to take any more from the Tavarins than necessary.
Of course, she could still change into a human and just walk, but…
What did it matter? She would be caught, or not. And if she was caught, then the Empire would know for sure, and Salshira would be safe. That was the whole point, wasn’t it?
She stared at the threshold, where bare dirt and stone transitioned into forest loam, and took a deep breath of the pine smell that came from the trees high on the mountain.
Now. Now was good. If she couldn’t walk it in this form, then she would change to human and do it that way.
She took a step forward, wincing as joints bent and ground and muscles slid and ached.
Something flitted through the trees.
Ember looked, and spotted a Kirtak. Mottled green and brown. On of the ones bred for the Salshiran scouts.
It watched her, hunched up on a branch, not trying to hide.
She listened and heard the rumble of horses. Many horses.
She wasn’t running away like this. She could change and run as a human, but she would be doing it naked, unless she took the time to put on her clothing, which would waste too much time.
Besides, the kirtak would just follow her.
Ember waited until Ean rode into sight. Of course it was Ean. And Trin. Surrounded by fifty-some cavalry.
Ean flushed as soon as he saw her and sent his horse ahead of the others. His horse approached nervously, but it was obviously one of the ones that had been trained with her as it came within ten strads and held still when Ean dismounted.
“Ember! We caught you in time.”
She had opened her mouth to tell him to go home, but something in his eyes stopped her words. They shone, and he couldn’t keep a smile off his face.
He was so glad to see her.
He rarely interrupted her, so it surprised her. The word “home” surprised her even more.
Especially as she thought of her room in the palace and all the people who lived there as soon as he said it.
The twist in her heart was too much to bear.
“I can’t, Ean. I can’t! I can’t risk all of you.”
He was two strads away now, looking up at her and standing between her and the world outside the cave.
“And I can’t let you throw your life away, Ember. Not to those monsters, for no purpose.”
“It’s not for no purpose.”
“You think they’ll just leave us alone now if they have you?”
Ember paused. He looked so sure.
“They might,” she said. “It’s worth me trying.”
“And if they still invade?” Ean spread his hands. “What then? You’ll be dead, and we’ll still lose lives. Starting with yours.”
Ember looked away from the intensity in his eyes. Those eyes said that her death alone was far too great a cost in his mind.
“But if it does save lives…”
“It won’t be forever. The Empire will come.”
“You don’t know that.”
“And you don’t know that your death will stop them now. But I think the history of Tenkreille and every other kingdom the Empire has invaded for no good reason is on my side. They’ll come, because they always come once they see something they want.”
She almost said that they hadn’t seen Salshira yet, but the evidence of the assassins inside the palace, and various things she had heard in Ean’s descriptions of his meeting with the Ambassador, said otherwise.
“There’s no place for me in Salshira, Ean. Your people will throw me out.”
“What if I could make it so they couldn’t?”
“We talked about that.” She scratched her claws across the stone of the cave floor, carving trails in the dark basalt. “I won’t take that from you.”
“What if I wanted you to?”
She glanced at him.
“I know you want me to, but I won’t steal…”
“What if I wanted you to be my future? To be part of it for as long as I have one? Just you?”
She looked at him directly and saw the heat bloom on his face. She also heard the quaver in his voice, and saw his hands trembling from his heartbeat as he breathed too fast.
“What… do you mean?”
Ean held her eyes, and Ember looked into those plain brown depths.
“I mean… I mean I want you to be my wife. You. Ember Rehkskarri. If… I know… I know it’s insane to ask. I know you don’t… I know I’m not attractive to you…” He looked away. “I’m sorry. I know you’re not…”
“Perhaps you are.”
He looked up at her.
“Do you really want me?” She asked.
He looked confused for a moment. She saw the words turning over in his head as he looked for the right phrases to use.
“Do you mean when you’re big?”
“No. Not that. I mean me. In any shape. I’m horrible.”
“I…” Ean sought words again, then seemed to throw them away. “Yes. You. However you are. On your worst days or… your best. You.”
Ember didn’t even feel any pain as she sliced the stone under her claws into chunks and worked it into gravel. She lowered her head and stared right into Ean’s eyes.
“Are you really that crazy?”
“About you… yes. I am.”
She studied him. Smelled him. Watched the heat dance across his face and skin.
Totally… totally in love. And… not mad. Steady, and rational. Committed to his decision.
“You idiot.” Even as she said it she realized her heart was beating fit to explode.
Why? Why me? Why does he love me?
The questions ran through her mind, stacking up until they fell over everything, covering all the far more important thoughts she had been considering just kellas before he arrived.
At the same time, one response stood clear of the mess, hot and brilliant in her heart.
She wanted this man. She wanted to be his. But…
“Why? Give me one reason, Ean. One thing that isn’t pity, or duty, or mad idiotic passion.”
“Kol sstakka zani. Kol threkol zani.”
She stared, feeling the response inside get so hot that it finally melted and set everything else on fire.
“You got the gender wrong on the pronouns,” she whispered.
“Is that a yes?”
* * *
Ember emerged from the cave clothed in the travel clothes and light kren armor from her pack. She walked up to Ean, studying his face again. He was still smiling. She took his hand and felt her heart start hammering again.
She felt lightheaded.
He lead her toward an extra horse that one of the soldiers had brought up and helped her into the saddle, then mounted himself. They started back toward the pass.
Ember couldn’t take her eyes off Ean.
It seemed he was having the same problem.
She smiled at him for the tenth, or hundredth, time.
A shadow passed overhead.
Trin looked up.
“Garagran! Scatter!” She whirled her horse to the right and drove him out of formation with the others.
A moment later the cavalry formation exploded, each rider choosing a different direction and galloping as fast as they could in the sparse, mountainous forest.
Ember looked up and saw a massive female Garagran drop down out of the sky, backwinging at the last instant into a fast strafe and lancing the ground with fire. Resinous trees exploded at the heat and three riders vanished with their horses in the white flash, a moment later falling away half charred to tumble down the hillside.
“Ember!” Ean yelled. “Ride for the pass!”
Ember looked at Ean, at the scattering cavalry now turning back with bows at the ready, special arrows nocked and drawn. She looked up and saw the Garagran banking, coming around for another pass.
And two more, already sweeping in.
She had to do something. She had to fight them, somehow. Protect Ean and the others.
No Ember. You don’t need to do anything. Just sleep.
The voice whispered in Ember’s mind and ran along her nerves. Once again she felt her strength run away as hands pressed in on her shoulders, as fingers drove into her side and a sensation of filth covered her whole body.
No. Not this. Not again.
I don’t love you, you dirty little whore, and you’re not mine. You’re worthless. Just give in and die.
No. That wasn’t…
Oh yes it is. Of course I’m Kai. Who are you to argue with me?
Should give in.
No. I can’t…
Lying. Of course not. Because I am Kai. Now die.
The world darkened. Ember saw nothing, and heard nothing but the voice that seemed to speak from inside her own head.
Her horse lunged away from something. She lost her grip. Fell backward. Hit the ground.
The impact brought the world back to her for a moment. Up in the sky she saw arrows burst into flame against the hides of Garagrans. Through the ground she heard hooves pounding as horses danced about.
Someone was calling her name.
Who? She tried to remember, but something else pushed back. Her mind was numb. All of her was numb.
The world faded again.
The last thing she saw was wings sweeping down and great claws reaching for her.