“I know.” He’d been asking for me for the past two days. Ever since I’d ran out of there with my brain and heart exploding.
“You’re scared. Now you’ve gotten what you so desperately sought, you’re scared of what you’ll soon need to do.” There was no hesitation to her words. Only gentle assumption.
My throat tightened, as did my hands around the armrests.
Ainx returned with a box in hand and his face paling. “My queen, one of the messengers just arrived.”
“Evidently,” I said, eyeing the box with a raised brow. “What is it?”
Ainx held it away from him as though he was afraid to sully his uniform. “It smells of decaying flesh.”
My stomach dropped, and I rose, moving around Truin to descend the stairs and take the box from him.
A scream lodged in my throat when I tore off the gilded golden lid to find two long fingers tucked away on a crisp white pillow. Drops of blood stained the satin in a few places, like crimson beads over snow.
They looked as if they’d been hacked from his hand, the skin prickled and pruned where the blood had dried, bits of bone peeking out.
Truin made a retching sound behind me.
With unsteady hands, I slid the lid back on and clutched the box tight to my stomach. Relief and regret warred. “He’s alive then.”
Ainx nodded. “Though I loathe to think how many body parts might be severed before he’s not.”
I ignored the undertone to his statement. “Prepare Wen and several guards.”
“Where are you going?” Truin asked.
I was already leaving the room with plans to grab a small satchel and change of clothes. “To visit an old friend.”
The lord of the east lived a half day’s ride from the castle, and though I’d never ventured to his estate before, I’d heard talk of it and some of my guards knew the way.
As far as I was aware, with the exception of a few staff, the lord lived alone. Ever since he’d lost his wife.
Rumor stated that she threw herself off a cliff into the falls that crashed downstream to meet with the Gray Sea some months after giving birth to a stillborn. I’d often wondered if she was the reason he’d never found someone else. If perhaps she was the reason our every exchange in our earlier days, and even now, was swathed with conflicting moments. I’d never asked.
At first it was because I didn’t care to. And now, it was because I probably cared more than I should.
Though it was rare for our kind to vow more than once in our long lifetimes, it still happened. There were few ways to escape a vow. Death, pleading—so long as both parties were in agreeance—with the crown, or treason.
Zad had remained a fixture in my court in the days after Raiden had been exiled for the latter.
Word declared his manor to be a sprawling glass rectangle with gardens upon the roof that overflowed to curtain the sides of the house, giving the appearance of an oversized, inside out greenhouse.
The whispers were not wrong, though they rarely ever were.
We exited the dark foliage of the Winding Woods and emerged into a starlit valley. Hooves thundered down the incline as we hurried to get out of view. We might have been in the lord of the east’s territory, but that had never stopped miscreants from doing what miscreants did before.
Dirt sprayed beneath Ainx’s horse as he led the way through mounds of moon-kissed grass riddled with white flowers.
I could see stables to the far left of the gated estate; a large white wooden expanse that looked as though it’d house at least twenty horses. Idly, I wondered if he had that many, or if he kept space for guests. Then I wondered how often the broody beast even had guests.
I shook off my useless thoughts and relaxed my thighs as we wound into the valley of his home. Behind the white wrought iron fence, which I knew would be warded, was a thin forest that stretched for miles—all the way to the cliffs where his wife took her life.
We dismounted as soon as the gates opened, our legs aching and stomachs growling after stopping only long enough to relieve ourselves and refill our canteens.
I grabbed my satchel from the saddle and handed Wen’s reins to Azela as a female with golden hair and matching eyes appeared and directed the guards to the stables.
On my own, I absorbed the pristine gardens filled with every type of flower imaginable, and even some that didn’t seem real. They littered the lawn before Zad’s glass home in small clusters, in larger groups upon the fence line, and in beds that raced along the glass exterior.
The scent of jasmine, lavender, roses, and other unnamable flora saturated the early evening air.
Drawing a slow breath, I felt my eyelids flutter.