Vanilla and lavender. The scents were warming and delicate, enticing Azalea to further sleep.
She fought against that impulse and peeled her eyes open.
She was in a room dimly lit by a single candlestand, the thumb-sized flame casting a flickering glow over the sparse furnishings of a guild madroom. The small table next to her was dressed with a jar of vanilla blossoms and lavender sprigs, which filled the space with a calming fragrance.
Da, she realized. Da or Ma had been here. Had visited their disobedient, wayward daughter, and even if they could not stay, had left her something to comfort her, something to remind her of home. Something to tell her that she was still welcome in their arms.
She did not deserve them.
Azalea nearly jumped when the door opened, revealing a young physician. He hesitated when he saw she was alert.
“Lady Stormrider!” he said, bowing. “How are you feeling?”
Lady what? Azalea thought. Aloud, she said: “Alright, I think.”
Actually, she was very tired, and everything hurt in some fashion, but in a way, that was a reassurance that she was not dead.
“Did, did we win?” she managed hesitantly.
The physician laughed, then abruptly stopped when he realized that she didn’t seem to be joking. “Um, yes, Lady Fairwen. All thanks to your efforts.”
“Me!” Azalea exclaimed, coloring.
“They’re calling you the Stormrider. Tamer of both man and beast.” The physician leaned forward, eyes gleaming. “Is it true that you mastered the Five with a crook of your pinky? That the crimson of your cloak comes from being soaked in its blood? That you choked it to death by having it consume its own tail?”
“That’s enough badgering of the patient,” came Thom’s amused, dry tone as he pushed into the room. The junior physician flushed and scuttled away.
“Oh, I didn’t mind,” Azalea said, embarrassed.
“It’s better for them not to learn any bad habits,” Thom said. “Not every war hero will be so forgiving.”
“Um. War what?”
“War hero.” Despite the weary lines around his eyes, he smiled. “You felled a Class Five within your third month of becoming a Hunter. That’s a reason to feel proud.”
“Oh,” Azalea stammered. “Oh, but…my part really was rather small. It was mostly…” She gasped and raised her head. “Azure! Where is he?”
“The Dragon Whisperer, the—he had a mask. He would have been near me.”
“Ah,” Thom said. “Not to worry. He’s overburned, but nothing serious. We couldn’t exactly take him into the Guild, not with his…past history with Hunters. But he’s under the care of one of his friends.”
Azalea relaxed. Then Azure was probably with Heidi. It was better that way, really; she couldn’t imagine the commotion his presence would invoke within the Guild.
“One last thing,” Thom said, nodding to the far edge of the room. “You have a guest of your own.”
Azalea turned her gaze, expecting—well, she wasn’t sure who to expect. Da or Ma, maybe, although they had already been by. But then she saw Wes curled in a cot on the floor, bandages wrapped around his head and up his arm, and everything seemed to fall into place. The world felt right with him next to her.
“He wouldn’t be parted from you,” Thom continued, “and Lina said not to drive him away. But if you’d rather have some privacy—”
“It’s alright,” Azalea said softly. She willed her arm to reach out and brush a lock of hair out of Wes’s face, but her body refused to move entirely. “I…I want him here.”
Thom inclined his head, unsurprised. He provided a few brief instructions—mostly to rest, and alert a physician if she experienced any new symptoms. Then he was called out again, no doubt for another medical emergency, another life to save.
Azalea watched Wes’s face as he slept, taking in his serene expression. He was so still and silent. Peaceful. Indulging in well-deserved rest. It was good; rest would help close his wounds and restore his body, and yet—
—for one terrifying moment, she saw blood caked over his skull and pooling around his body, and his limbs twisted in angles, lifeless—
Fear constricted Azalea’s chest like iron, and she wormed helplessly under her unduly heavy covers, struggling to breathe. She kicked a leg out and twisted toward the edge of the bed, but her balance faltered. She fell heavily on her arm with a splitting, searing pain that had her cry out shrilly.
Wes’s body jerked at the noise and his eyes flew open. He instinctively reached for her, flinching hard as his own battered arm scraped the floor.
“What’s wrong?” he said hoarsely. “What happened?”
Alive. Azalea clasped his extended hand—warm, thank the Myths—and quickly shook her head.
“Nowhere,” she said tremulously. “I’m fine.” That was not quite right. There was a hollow spot in her chest that still ached, and soberingly, Azalea realized it would never quite mend. A small part of her would always fear his death, would always shrivel whenever he lay quiet and still.
Wes, kind Wes, read her easily. He squeezed her hand comfortingly, his thumb rubbing slow circles over hers. They laid there on the floor like two helpless worms after the rain, utterly spent.
Slowly, Azalea’s panic died down, leaving only a lingering weariness. She sighed and raised her head, trying a weak smile.
“How do you feel?” she whispered. “Alright?”
The motion of Wes’s thumb stopped. “Great,” he said. “I feel great.”
“You’re plastered in bandages.”
“The Storm is over. We won.” He smiled. “How could I not feel great?”
She couldn’t help but smile back. “But, um…everything kind of hurts right now.”
He chuckled. “Fair enough. You should get back on the bed. Makes for better resting than the floor.”
“You should,” Azalea replied. “Only one of us is a noble.”
“Only one of us is a venerated war hero.”
“It’s you, Lord Geppett.”
“I beg to differ, Lady Stormrider.”
Lady Stormrider! She flushed. “Well—well, you shouldn’t sleep on the floor. Your back will get all achey.”
“And yours won’t?” said Wes. “You have more injuries, take the bed.”
“I can’t,” she blurted. She reached out with her free hand until her finger just lightly brushed his cheek, a timid and indulgent touch. “I have to see you.”
Wes’s smile faded. The light in his eyes changed at once to something Azalea had never seen before—a dark and rich color where his pupils swallowed up his eyes, as if the amber had caramelized. He laughed in a soft way she did not recognize and cradled her hand in his.
She watched silently, enthralled, as he raised her hand and slowly, painstakingly brushed his mouth over her knuckles. His lips were a feather’s touch on her fingers, tender and fleeting in a way that made her heart curl and her ears warm.
She knew what she should say. Save this for that girl you wish to court. Her mind crafted the image of this perfect, porcelain bride—a sweet and genteel noblewoman, stellar at music and languages and all the refined arts, and—and she always ate with the right fork at every dinner course. Azalea imagined this flawless girl standing before Wes, smiling and blushing as he kissed her fingers just like this, so loving and vulnerable. Yes, that image was correct. That was the sort of girl who should be getting her fingers kissed, not a Hunter from the country with battered hands and coarse nails.
But Azalea did not pull her hand away or rebuke Wes. She lay there silently, her heart aching terribly as his soft mouth caressed her fingertips.
Wes was watching her carefully, his amber eyes gleaming. His smile slowly faded, and he released her hand. The empty air felt cold.
“You’re upset,” he murmured.
Azalea stared at her lonely fingers as they curled on the ground.
Wes shifted back a little. “I’m sorry.”
Instinctively, Azalea’s hand snapped out and gripped his shirt, tugging him back. Surprise flashed over Wes’s face, and a hint of color spilled into his cheeks.
“No,” Azalea said quickly. “It’s not because of you.” Well, it was, but not in the way he was thinking. Such an intimate gesture that wasn’t for her, that couldn’t be for her—she wanted more of it.
Selfish, whispered her mind. Even if he were to choose you, to love you—it can’t be. All you would bring him is suffering.
On another night, Azalea might have listened.
On this one, she pushed those thoughts away and snuggled closer.
Wes’s breath hitched, drawn out and tender, as she curled into his chest until she was encircled by his warmth and the soft cotton of his shirt. This close, he didn’t feel frail and waxen; his arms braced around her, strong as iron, and his heartbeat thumped steadily under her hands.
One night. She could be selfish for one night.
Wes didn’t push her away. He pressed his nose into her hair with a languid sigh, rubbing a thumb over her shoulder in a comforting way. Azalea closed her eyes, sinking further into his embrace, until he took up all the space in her drifting thoughts and her humming, contented heart.
She would see reason in the morning.
The bland, sterile walls of the royal infirmary greeted Sethis when he opened his eyes—opulent yet dead as a columbarium with its marble floors, gilded walls, and broad swaths of chilling, empty space. He groaned and leaned heavily against his pillows—fine silk and down feathers, far more luxurious than was his right. Not when so many injured soldiers lay in congested infirmaries across the nation.
At his bedside, the squat, wizened Royal Physician regarded him sternly from beneath a pair of angled spectacles. “Your Highness,” he said in a thin, musty voice.
Sethis laid an arm over his aching eyes and sighed. “Yes, Maurice.”
“You simply must stop endangering your life in this reckless manner.”
“And I ought to remain in the palace,” Sethis recited wearily, “where it is safe.”
“Yes, Highness. You are the last thread of the Lunaren line. The only remnant with the blood to wield Excalibur.”
Excalibur. Excalibur had not surfaced for a thousand years, and perhaps it never would again. Even if it did, perhaps it would not select the Lunaren bloodline to bear it. For Aster Arthus had truly been a king even before he’d been crowned, from his courage to his bearing to his tireless love for his people. But what had his descendants done, other than let his legacy rot with the stench of their complacency?
No, even if Excalibur were to rise again, Sethis knew he would not deserve it. Nor would his father, paralyzed by fear and tormented by the shadows of his own mind.
To voice such doubts would be blasphemous coming from the crown prince, so Sethis tried a different approach.
“Do not be quick to forget my brother,” Sethis said. “He bears Lunaren blood as well.”
“Your brother.” Maurice scowled. “It shall be a miracle if that boy can tempt a spouse, let alone father a child.”
“Maurice,” Sethis said sharply.
The physician’s face quickly flattened. “My apologies, Your Highness. I meant no offense.”
It was rather offensive, Sethis thought, but he held his tongue. Airlea’s second prince, barely out of youth, was known to be particularly prickly, rejecting most of polite society in favor of holing himself up in his room. Although Sethis loved him dearly, criticisms of his behavior were far from uncommon.
A knock in the silence nearly startled him. Maurice turned to the double doors of the infirmary.
“Who disturbs His Highness’s rest?” he called.
The voice that replied was refined, yet sharp as steel. “Lilian Forsythe, Captain of the Royal Guard, seeks a private audience with His Highness, the Crown Prince of Airlea.”
Sethis smothered a smile. Before Maurice could protest, he waved a hand.
“Enter,” he said.
The doors creaked as a woman pushed into the cold expanse of the infirmary. She could have walked straight out of a mythic painting: tall, agile frame, gilded pauldrons, orchid-blue hair pulled back into a sleek ponytail. Although she forewent the uniform gauntlets and greaves in favor of light, flexible boots and gloves, she looked every bit the royal paladin befitting her station.
She sank into a deep, graceful curtsy, which was quite at odds with the stiff trappings of her armor.
“Greetings,” she intoned regally, “Your Royal Highness, my dearest cousin, and…the most insufferable vagabond on this side of the Atlas Sea.”
Sethis grinned warmly. “Lilian.”
“Don’t you Lilian me.” She drew upright, eyes blazing the same blue-green as Sethis’s. “After all that nonsense about listening to the king because I’ve taken a royal oath, and I should behave, and I should stay put—who do I find ignoring his father’s wishes, gallivanting off in the countryside beset by monsters?”
Sethis tried to bow his head in penitence, but his lingering smile ruined the effect. “A fool, no doubt.”
“A foolish boy caught filching sweets from the kitchens,” Lilian said. “But his greatest mistake was not bringing his own Royal Guard with him.”
“You are not mine, but my father’s. I would hardly subject you to his scorn and discipline for my own poor decisions.”
“Asters, Seth, do you think we like sitting on our hands and watching the city burn?” Lilian snapped. “So help me, get us the authorization to dispatch, or I’ll turn in my sigil before you’re out of this ward. I would have a greater effect on the town as a troupe performer at the moment.”
The image of her juggling swords and breathing fire was, in fact, quite fitting, but Sethis decided not to mention that. Lilian Forsythe was one of his last ties to his mother’s side, and her feisty spirit had been a very welcome companion these past years. It would be best not to unduly offend her.
“I’ll speak with Father about it,” he promised. “At the first opportunity. You have my word.”
Lilian’s expression fell into wariness. “I don’t imagine he’ll listen, Seth.”
“Still, he is king. I must honor his authority.”
“You’ve already ignored it once, and because of that, Northelm survived,” Lilian pointed out. “We both know that Uncle can no longer—”
Sethis shot her a warning look. The palace was not safe from prying eyes and ears, and open criticism of the king would not be taken kindly.
Lilian quieted for a moment, but it wasn’t long before she spoke again. “The Royal Guard may only be twenty strong, but even twenty can turn the tide. Use them, Seth. However you must.”
He knew what she truly meant: If the Royal Guard are under the king’s command, then become king. He exhaled and stared at the decorated ceiling, bile rising to his throat at the beautiful mural of Aster Arthus riding into battle, flanked by his trusted knights.
Don’t have me depose my own father, he wanted to beg. But how could he say a word when Airlea suffered daily for the indolence of its reigning king?
Lilian’s voice softened. “I’ll leave you to rest. Think on it, will you?”
As if he could do anything else. The weight of her words would linger on his mind for the weeks to come.
“I will,” Sethis said.
Lilian reached out and squeezed his shoulder. “I’m glad that you made it. Truly.”
“Thank you, Lilian.”
“But if this happens again, then it’s not the beasts you’ll have to worry about.” She gave him a hard look. “Are we clear?”
He chuckled. “Are you threatening the future king?”
She tapped his head lightly. “I’m threatening my boneheaded cousin. A fool is a fool, whether they’re a prince or a pauper.”
He laughed softly, and she left him to his rest, doors echoing as they clicked shut behind her. He leaned back and returned to staring at the ceiling, tracing the beloved murals with his gaze, wondering if he would ever have to steep the palace in blood to save it.
Karis drifted in the space between waking and sleeping for what felt like an eternity.
She caught glimpses here and there: the sun breaking through thick clouds; Corpse Princess carted in with a bleeding stump of a leg; Thom’s concerned frown; a butterfly dancing through the window and perching on her nose. Other visions were stranger, murkier. A stretching sun. Rolling ocean waves. Darkness that soaked the soil.
She woke, feeling rattled and disoriented. Her breath came in short flutters and gasps, twisting the dim flames of a nearby lampstand into menacing shadows. Her right hand flailed, searching for Celeste. It was stopped by the sudden, solid grip of warm fingers.
“Hey,” murmured a low and resonant voice. “It’s alright. We’re in the Guild.”
She recognized Halcyon. She eased without trying.
“It’s dark,” she managed. The syllables felt weak and crusty. She needed water.
“Just night. It’ll be dawn soon.” Halcyon’s hand released her. Past the haze, Karis vaguely considered grabbing it again—a thought that would have appalled her had she been in full command of her faculties. But she needn’t have worried. Shortly, she felt a small stone cup press against her hand. She drank the cool, sweet water and focused on slowing her breathing.
The blurry room gradually settled into form around her. She was in a madroom. The curtains were drawn. The lampstand burned slowly, licking at the wax rolling down from the wick. Halcyon was propped up on pillows in a bed two feet away from hers, one arm swaddled tightly to his chest with bandages. Still, he looked alert, healthy. He would make a full recovery before long.
Karis tried to stretch her stiff, heavy arms, only to feel a rough stab of pain in her neck. She flinched. “So we’re alive,” she said, reaching up to press on the pounding knot at the base of her neck.
“Looks that way,” Halcyon said, breathing out a chuckle. “If the pain is anything to go by.”
“They put us in a madroom?”
“Quarantined. Who knows what we could develop after saturating in the aura of a Five. Could even be contagious.”
“I hope not,” Karis said with a hint of sullenness. “I will not allow a Five to best me from the grave.”
“You were cleared earlier today. You can leave whenever you like.”
She looked him over again, alarmed. “And you?” Nothing seemed out of place.
“I need some more monitoring,” Halcyon said. “I touched the Five directly when I sliced it through.”
Karis laid her head back on her pillow. “I doubt I shall move anytime soon. It’s moments like these where I feel my age.”
“Don’t let Nicolina hear you say that,” Halcyon said amusedly.
“Ah, yes, I can hear her now,” Karis mused. “ ‘Asters alive, Caelute, if you’re old then I’ve got one foot in the grave! Spring chicken doesn’t know what she’s talking about.’”
Halcyon actually chuckled, then abruptly winced. Karis laughed too, then winced with him as her ribs stung under her skin with vengeance. It took a moment for the pain to fade before Halcyon spoke again.
“I’m glad you made it, Caelute,” he said quietly. “Stay well if you can.”
Karis could not shake the sudden, strange gentleness of his tone. “You as well, Yuden,” she said. She cleared her throat lightly. “Recuperating would be exceedingly dull without you here.”
“Just recuperating?” said Halcyon suddenly.
Words were lost to her for a moment. Bewildered, she turned to look at him. She expected his gaze to be fixed on the ceiling, or his eyes to be closed. Instead, she found him looking right at her, those blue irises as vibrant and mysterious as the ocean. She blinked, an odd dart of heat throbbing in her chest and rushing up her neck.
“No, not just recuperating,” she murmured. She looked away. “Though that does appear to occupy a fair bit of our time together.”
She heard a rustle as he turned his head away, alleviating the pressure of his gaze. “Maybe if we asked nicely, the world would stop throwing Fours and Fives at us,” he said amusedly.
She chuckled. “But then, how could we have our fun?”
“Something constructive, I’m sure. Like painting. Picnicking. Watching the sunset.”
That made him laugh, which, in turn, made her smile grow. His laughter was rare, but beautiful, a full and honeyed sound. Though she would sooner die than be caught admitting such a thing.
The madroom door opened, and Karis jerked out of her fond thoughts guiltily. Odd. It wasn’t as if the entering party could read her mind.
But perhaps this was worse.
Guildmaster Nicolina Cotton walked very calmly before them, dark skin flecked with firelight, hands clasped behind her back, face impassive.
“Hunter Caelute,” she said with a nod. “Hunter Yuden.” An even tone. An even temper.
Karis hadn’t felt such fear since her Exam.
“Yes, ah, Guildmaster?” she said nervously.
“Well done on the Class Five,” Nicolina said, still in that calm, controlled tone. “You’ve saved many lives. Once again, the nation is in your debt.”
Where was the scolding? The glaring? The slipper to the head? Karis tried not to shrink in her bedding.
“Thank, thank you,” she said.
Nicolina arched a brow. “Why do you look so nervous?”
Karis bit her lip. “I must admit that I was expecting a…livelier reaction.”
“I’m not stupid, Caelute,” Nicolina said, smiling ruefully. “I know full well that you and Yuden were the only ones who could handle that Five. Northelm was in dire straits, and you kept its flame alive. I meant every word. What you did was truly commendable.”
“Oh. I see.” And right as Karis eased back into bed, right as she lowered her guard—
A slipper soared through the air and struck her right on the temple.
“Ow,” Karis said, and from Halcyon’s accompanying grunt, he must have received the same treatment.
Nicolina sniffed. “That’s for disobeying my orders every time.”
“What did I do,” Halcyon muttered.
“You came into the last surge with cracked ribs, a concussion, and overburn from scuffling with the Dragon Whisperer. Or does your memory not go that far back?”
He muttered something indiscernible, and Nicolina turned back to Karis, the smile on her face turning saccharine.
“One more thing,” the guildmaster said. “Your mother is waiting.”
Karis did not think it was possible for all warmth to drain away from the human body so quickly, leaving her cold as snow. “Pardon?”
“You heard me.” Nicolina’s smile broadened, and Karis could have sworn that it looked a touch vindictive. “She’s very worried for you. Shall I show her in?”
Oh, Asters forbid! Not when she was anywhere near a man, certainly not one as handsome as Yuden. She would never hear the end of it.
Karis scrambled out of bed, biting back a cry as her back and shoulders smarted with vengeance. Halcyon sat up and watched her with clear concern as she tugged on her shoes, threw on a traveling cloak, and raked her fingers through her hair in an attempt to make it presentable.
“Don’t strain yourself,” he said. “It’d better for you to stay. For the—your health, I mean, so you don’t overexert—”
“Do you like porridge?” Karis interrupted, securing a pouch around her waist.
“Porridge?” Halcyon repeated. “Yes? Yes.”
“Chicken and rice? Onion and potato?”
“Uh. Anything, really.”
“Good.” She pulled the hood of the cloak over her head. “Rest well, Hal.”
He looked utterly bewildered as she scuttled past Nicolina and out of the madroom. All the better, really. If a bowl of porridge magicked its way to his bedside table later that evening, then Karis would have nothing to explain.
It's the final week AAAAAAAAA WE'RE ALMOST THERE