Turning back to the waterfall and the small rainforest that surrounded it, I ran a hand over my too-long hair. I’d decided to sleep outside, climbing into a nearby hammock, but then I wondered if Eline would kill me in my sleep or if I even cared.
A stupid thought. Petulant, given all I’d done and been through to make it back here.
With that in mind, I dragged myself through the sand-sprinkled halls and up the sandstone steps of the highest tower to lock myself in my chambers. I’d hardly looked around the large, rotund space. It was all the same.
As though their precious prince had never really left. As though he’d never dare allow himself to fall for the wicked winter queen he’d been sent to kill and would journey back home the same male he’d been when he’d first left.
I had to wonder if I’d disappointed the lot of them, and perhaps myself, by not living up to their ideals.
I heated the locked doors to a scalding temperature should anyone have a key and then dropped to the monstrous-sized mattress dressed in fresh white linens in the center of the room.
Vanamar’s nostrils blew a gust of hot wind onto my hands and wrists as I fussed with his reins to secure them. “Oh, stop it. Do you want them chafing?” Another huff, and I smiled. “Exactly.”
Once his saddle was secure, I unlatched his enclosure and led him out into the cavernous hall of the stables.
“You always speak to him as if he were your friend.”
I climbed up his back, throwing my leg over and situating myself comfortably in the saddle. “That’s because he is.”
Zad straightened from the stable door he’d been leaning against, then strolled toward Cook’s enclosure, a black and silver temperamental female. A low snarl rippled through the cave, but the lord only smiled and procured a large turnip from his pocket.
Cook stilled, then crept forward. Her tail thrashed into the walls, causing dirt to rain as her excitement grew.
“You’ll lose your hand if you don’t throw it in,” I warned. “She has little tolerance for strangers.” Especially males, I didn’t add.
“Sounds familiar,” Zad murmured, and the affection in his voice mirrored that of his eyes when they flicked to me.
Something kicked inside my chest, then a stable hand rushed over. He blinked rapidly as he watched the lord of the east hold out his hand, balancing the turnip upon his flattened palm.
Cook lunged, and Zad pulled back, tutting.
Huffing, the beast shimmied closer, her long purple tongue sneaking out to lick the air.
Again, he moved his hand forward, and then with lightning speed, he plucked it back when she moved too fast. “Easy,” he said, voice soft. “Gentle, or nothing.”
I raised my brows at that but chose to keep my mouth shut.
I loathed to admit it, but I was a little nervous. I’d grown to like those hands of his a little too much.
Finally, Cook seemed to receive the message, and her handler and I both stared in stupefied amazement when she licked the turnip from Zad’s outstretched hand, then backed up to chew it to pieces. “Good girl,” Zad crooned.
If I thought he was done here, I was wrong. “What are you doing?”
“What does it look like?” Unhooking Cook’s saddle from the wall, he walked inside her enclosure. The beast stood frighteningly still as he ran his hand down her flanks, then began to prepare her for flight.
I waited, knowing she was going to snap at him eventually, but it never happened.
The handler, still open-mouthed, turned to me as Zad led her out of her pen. “Uh, Majesty?”
I flicked my hand. “It’s fine.” Eyeing Zad, I said, “If the lord thinks he can best a beast, who are we to tell him not to?”
Zad’s shoulders shook with silent laughter. Mine did too, when he tried to mount Cook and her head flung around, teeth snapping dangerously close to his knee.
After staring at him a moment, Cook relented, begrudgingly allowing him to climb onto the saddle.
“I was hoping to be alone,” I said, moving Van to the cave’s rear entrance.
“Sorry to ruin your plans.”
Outside, on the lip of the cliff, the wind kicked back my hair, of which I’d forgotten to braid. “You are no such thing.”
“You’re right.” He threw me a roguish smirk, then clicked his tongue, spurring Cook into a run.
My eyes widened as she raced toward the edge, rock crumbling beneath her clawed feet, and took flight.
They dipped, so low that my breathing halted, and then, with a laugh that thundered through the skies, a laugh that never failed to steal my attention, they rose and circled the mountain.
Smiling, I urged Vanamar to follow, remembering a time when I’d first heard that laughter.
“Momma,” I whined, yanking on her soft dress. “I want to go.”
Her hand landed upon my brow, gentle, protective, and reassuring. “We must stay for a little while longer, Audry. Remember what I told you?”