Fire raged. All around. Buildings and great trees tumbled in the flames. Everywhere people screamed.
One scream stood out.
Ean followed on foot, running. Running faster.
Running until he heard the beat of great wings warping the scream with each stroke.
He called, but she kept screaming. He searched, but couldn’t find.
Only heard her scream. And the beat of those wings. And saw the flames of burning buildings.
He felt a pain in his chest. Wet warmth on his arms and legs.
He looked down, and saw that his chest was torn open.
He realized he was lying flat, and the buildings were burning above him and all around him.
The great wings beat. He saw the great shadow in the sky.
There was Ember, screaming, clutched in its claws.
Scales covered her face, and as he watched they grew over her skin, slowly covering her, until there was nothing human visible.
He wanted to get up. He wanted to help her.
But he could not move.
I’m so sorry.
* * *
“I’m going after her!”
Ean, already armored, headed for the door of his office with his backpack slung over his shoulder.
Trin blocked him.
“Your place is here, Ean.”
Ean glared at her.
“She’s my betrothed. Truly now. I’m going after her.”
“She may be dead already.”
“The Garagran took her. It didn’t kill her. If they were going to kill her right away they would have done it.”
Trin held his gaze, unmoving. He moved to pass her. She blocked again. He tried to shove his way past.
Suddenly he was looking up at the ceiling from the floor. He stared at the thick hahrax beams of the rafters for a moment and then sat up.
“You can’t watch me all day.”
He heard his sister sigh.
“I shouldn’t have to. You can’t go after her. You have to look after Salshira.”
Ean checked himself before snapping back, and thought of his duty.
Tried to think of his duty.
Kai… I have oaths.
“I don’t care,” he said and pushed up off the floor. He turned and looked into Trin’s eyes from a hand away.
“Yes, you do.”
He thought of the people all across Salshira, the farmers, factory workers, husbands, wives, children, shop owners, professors, students… all without any walls to defend them but the mountains.
Then he thought of the Council. The vote to throw Ember out. Kaim. Tala, and the things Lahnria had, reluctantly, told him Tala said. He thought of all those people, and Ember dying alone with no one to protect her.
“Salshira can burn.”
Trin winced. But she didn’t move. Didn’t look away. Those steady brown eyes filled his vision, held him steady.
“You don’t mean that, little brother.”
“Not everyone wanted her to go.”
“They didn’t do much to prevent it, did they?”
She nodded. “No, they didn’t. But some did. And you’re still their prince. You have a duty to be here and defend them.”
Ean clenched his teeth.
“If they won’t do what’s right, they can get another prince.”
“That’s not how it works and you know that.”
Ean shivered. She wasn’t going to move.
Ember was going to die. If she wasn’t already dead, she was going to die.
And he was going to let her.
“I’m not going to abandon her.”
“Of course you aren’t. But you aren’t going to abandon your people to go haring off after one woman in the middle of a war, either.”
“The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine on the hill to go after the one…”
“Not when the ninety-nine are also surrounded by wolves.”
“Ean, you’re an engineer.”
Ean put his hand on the hilt of his sword.
“I’m a good archer and swordsman, too.”
Trin shook her head.
“Not that good. There are plenty who fight better. But there’s no one who can design defenses and structures like you. That’s what you do.” She put her hands on his shoulders. “Salshira needs that right now. And it needs leadership. Someone else can go after Ember. Someone who’s better for the job.”
Ean tilted his ears toward her.
Trin smiled wider.
“You’re looking at her.”
“She’s my betrothed.”
“And my sister-in-heart and future sister-in-law.” Trin shook him a little and gave him a look that felt like she was trying to will good sense into his head. “Ean, she needs a place to come home to. Where will she go if Salshira isn’t here? She left for us. Do you think she wants you to let it all burn to come after her?”
Ean clenched his hands, then unclenched them, then clenched them again.
“It deserves to burn.”
“We all do. But that’s bitterness in your voice, and bitterness doesn’t suit a Tavarin. Or a son of Kai. Let it go.”
Ean stared into her eyes, wanting to look away and hold onto all the anger in his chest. Curse that council! Kaim, Tala, Meakrun, and all those fools.
Trin saw what he was thinking. He was certain.
Let it go, her eyes said.
He looked away, over her shoulder and through the door.
Leave now, go and get Ember. Where? He had never been out of the Kingdom before. He didn’t know how to get to Wahstruhl. If that was even where she was. And if she wasn’t there, how would he find out where? And when he got there, how would he get her? He couldn’t fight an entire city filled with Garagrans. Could he?
And what would happen to Salshira while he was gone?
Would it continue to stand?
Trin had been everywhere, fought just about everything, found any number of things that powerful people would have preferred she didn’t.
He hadn’t. But he had designed any number of hospitals, watchtowers, border walls, armor sets, vehicles, solar systems, and so on. And he was the Prince, responsible and recognized as the King’s heir and his effective right-hand man.
She was right. Thek! She was right!
He looked back and met her eyes again.
“Okay. I’ll stay. Take anything you want from the armory, and as many soldiers as you think you need. Anyone, any number. I’ll make sure everything gets signed off on.”
“I have what I need already.” Her eyes twinkled and she glanced up in thought. “Well… I may take a few items.” She looked back. “Focus, Ean. Keep this place intact. And pray. For Ember, for me, and for this country. Forgive your people. We all need it.”
“You’ll do, or Yahsaw will have a talk with you.”
Ean nodded. Then unclenched his hands and let go.
“I’ll do. Now go. Get her back.”
“As you command, your Highness.”
Trin smiled, and was gone.