With the furbanes tied to a thick tree, Cook looking unimpressed as Vanamar kept encroaching on her personal space, we took a seat on a lichen-speckled rock.
“How did you know my mother?”
If the random question bothered him, I didn’t notice. Staring down at the kingdom, Zad took his time to answer. “I never bedded her, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
I had wondered that on the odd occasion. It wouldn’t exactly be uncommon. Royals were known not to give a shit when it came to lust and love. If they wanted something, they took it, regardless of who the person was to someone else.
The woman from The Edges, Raiden’s betrothed, came to mind.
“She knew Kash.”
That brought me up short. “Your friend Kash?”
Volatile, cruel smiling Kash. “In what way?”
With his lips twisting, he then smirked at me. “In every way a female and male can know one another.”
I looked away, remembering what he’d said about me in the tavern. “He wishes me dead.”
“He wouldn’t dare.” His voice was drenched in winter cold vehemence. “He knows what you…” He stopped.
I gazed back at him. “Knows of what?”
Zad’s teeth grazed his lower lip, his eyes bright on mine. I withheld the shiver that tried to wrack my entire body. “He knows what you mean to me.”
Swallowing, I ripped my eyes from his. “So they were together.”
“Some think they linked, though I’ve never been able to get a straight answer from him.”
“What?” I wheezed.
Zad plucked at some grass. “They’d known each other since she was a child. For a time, Kash lived in the village your grandparents attempted to raise your mother in. Before the king laid eyes on her and had her brought to the castle once her womanhood had arrived.”
The wind gathered my hair, blowing it sideways and causing it to tickle my lips. I shoved it back, tucking the ends into the neck of my tunic, for all the good it would do. “She… so she loved him?”
His voice was rough. “Until the day she died.”
I closed my eyes, feeling goose bumps rise upon my exposed skin, and breathed. I’d known my mother had suffered at the hands of my father for hundreds of years, that she had done her best not to procreate with him, and she’d been beaten half to death for it.
But I hated that I hadn’t known this. The regret of never truly knowing her, not for all that she was. The female I knew was timid but strong with eyes that seemed to never close for fear of what might happen. She was song, and she was whispers, loud in ways that covered and smothered who she was. That enabled her to play my father’s games and survive.
Until she didn’t.
“My father hunted his kind.”
Zad didn’t curse or shift. He didn’t seem to react at all as I opened my eyes. He simply asked, “What shall you do?”
“Nothing,” I said, then added pointedly, “So long as they don’t.”
His eyes assessed. “You mean that.”
“You know that, or else you wouldn’t have dared to bring them within breathing distance of me.”
His mouth curved, and he then reached for my hand to slide a small grass chain I hadn’t noticed he’d been making around my wrist.
“You sicken me.” And he knew I meant so in all the best ways as he lifted my hand to his sinful lips.
I laughed when his tongue snuck out, and then squeaked when he tugged me over to sit on his lap. His arms banded around me, lips warm upon my neck. “How long have you known them?” He knew I was referring to his friends.
“Most of my life. My mother knew theirs, and before she died, she asked that we look out for them.”
“An exceptionally dangerous request.”
“We’d grown up together, learned how to fight and fuck together—they’re my brothers as much as I am theirs.”
I crinkled my nose but sank into him even more. “So they won’t touch me because of you.”
“For as much as Kash might think he hates you, and the others are wary, I do not think they would.”
It occurred to me then. “Perhaps it is not that my father hunted them and their kind, but because I am a reminder of something that was stolen from him.” His arms tightened around me. “I was hers, but not his.”
“I think you could be right.”
“I usually am,” I said and felt him shake with laughter. “How have they gone this long without someone figuring it out?”
“Many years of looking over their shoulders.” Ever the storyteller, his tone held notes of affection, of a love as ancient as time itself. “They’re cunning by nature, their senses more attuned to threats. It’s been relatively easy since the king’s men have stopped looking for them.” Zad contemplated that a moment. “Which seemed to be around the time your nuptials to Raiden were being planned.”