“I don’t need to do this, Red.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Really, I don’t.”
“It’s not my thing, you know,” Echo complained. “It’s not a Lone Wolf, terrifying mercenary of the underworld thing to—to be pleasant, to play nice with people, to—”
“Well, if you must make it sound so patronizing, yes.”
“You deserve to be patronized for this one, Echo,” Azalea said, giving him an unusually stern look. “It’s just the two words ‘I’m sorry.’ It’s not the end of the world.”
Echo grumbled something indistinctly and kicked at the dirt like a little boy. Azalea nearly giggled. How at odds his stark, lanky figure was with the idyllic cottages and flower-lined paths of Maple Point.
“If you want to learn how to grow tomatoes,” she said, “then this is the way.”
“I don’t want to learn how to grow tomatoes. I have no interest in gardening. I was being glib.”
“Aron.” He cleared his throat. “My…my real name. The only thing my mother left me with.”
She stared at him, stunned. That seemed like quite the significant and emotionally poignant piece of information to drop.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Echo said gruffly.
“Oh, no,” said Azalea. “I was just thinking…you’re like a pastry. You look crusty on the outside, but inside, you’re soft and buttery.”
He balked. “You did not just liken the most powerful mercenary of the underground to a pastry.”
“I did.” Azalea rolled back her shoulders and resolutely faced the rustic door of the Fairwen cottage. “Look, I’ll apologize first. We’ll be doing it together. Doesn’t that make it better?”
“Well, of course they’ll accept your apology. Refusing you would be like kicking a kitten. What about me?”
Deciding that he was complaining for complaint’s sake, Azalea ignored him and knocked solidly on the door. Truthfully, she was beginning to feel sick. What if she had been mistaken? What if that jar of vanilla and lavender hadn’t been from home, but from a kind physician? What if Da hated her? What if Ma had relapsed and was unconscious—
The door opened. Stern, Fairwen-green eyes blinked back at her.
Azalea gripped the doorframe to steady herself. She could already feel her voice beginning to shake with tears.
“Da,” she whispered.
“Aza,” said Aleks Fairwen.
Her prepared speech trailed away, lost. Suddenly, seeing the deep lines in his brow and the worn shadows around his eyes made an I’m sorry sound pale and small.
No, she told herself. It still had to be said. An apology was not about acquiring forgiveness. She had to show Echo that firsthand, no matter how her da might reply.
Azalea bowed her head, reaching for her practiced words. “There…there are no words that fit an apology you deserve, Da, but still,” she choked out. “I’m so sorry. For the way I’ve hurt you and worried you. And—and I hope you’ve been well, and you’ll continue to be well, and—”
She stuttered to a stop as Da stepped forward, heavy boot sinking into the porch in a way that made her flinch. She didn’t know why. Da had never, ever struck her, even at his angriest. But she was shaking all over and so scared of what he might say in these next dreadful moments.
So much for the fearless Lady Stormrider.
“Aza,” Da said. “Look at me.”
She slowly raised her eyes, nausea boiling.
There was no anger in the green eyes that reflected her own. The color was as soft and idyllic as a meadow, beckoning her forward with a fragrant breeze.
“This will always be a home for you,” Da said.
Such few words, but they were enough to break down the thread of will holding back her tears. Yet again, Azalea found herself throwing her arms around her da. Her chest wrung like a wet rag as she hiccuped against his chest.
She felt his hand press on her hair. His words were slow and careful. Just like hers. “I know that there are things you have to carry, things that no one else can bear. How can I scold you for that?”
“Da,” she croaked.
“You’re not a little girl anymore, Aza.” He kissed the top of her head. “I wish that you didn’t have to run off and save everyone. But I know that it has to be done.”
A little sob escaped her. He saw her, knew her struggles. He understood. In that moment, her heart could not have felt any more full, and she could not have wanted anything more.
Had she been alone, Azalea might have lingered there, clinging to her da like a child, as if his embrace could shut out the world. But there were other matters to face. Other bridges to repair.
Reluctantly, with an affectionate nudge on her father’s shoulder, she pulled back. She wiped down her face with her sleeve as she turned to Echo.
If the hardened mercenary had looked out of place before, surrounded by cottages and wildflowers, the discrepancy was egregious now. He looked unsettled and awkward, fidgeting to the side with his hands thrust in his pockets, looking like he was trying to melt into the grass.
Da saw him immediately. His soft, open posture coiled up at once, jaw forming a hard line.
“You,” he growled.
The force of it made Azalea shudder. Echo didn’t cower, but his fingers instinctively flicked to the knife stashed in his belt. But Da did not step forward. He remained planted in the doorway like an immovable stone, arms folded as he regarded Echo with icy stare.
Echo cleared his throat and drifted backwards. “Well, Little Red…I oughtn’t disturb your family reunion, so—”
“No.” She seized him by his cloak and dragged him to stand right in front of Da. “You’re going to learn to apologize. Then we’ll all have dinner together and everything will be just fine.”
Echo, the Lone Wolf, fearsome mercenary of the Mythaven underworld, averted his eyes from the simple country lumberjack before him.
“Um,” he said hesitantly. “Hello there.”
Azalea kicked him lightly in the shin, and he flinched.
“Sorry,” he blurted. “Or, that is…yes, I’m sorry.” At Da’s unimpressed silence, he stumbled on. “I’ve a sharp tongue. It often says things poorly. I’m sorry for what I said.”
As apologies went, it was mostly selfish and pretty bad. But Azalea could tell that Echo was trying—that this was quite possibly the first time he had ever apologized in his life—and from the nearly imperceptible softening of her da’s face, he could tell too.
Da stepped back and nodded into the house. “I’m not the one you should apologize to,” he said.
Echo’s pale face went even whiter, and he cast an accusatory glance at Azalea. Two apologies had not been part of the bargain. She was almost certain he would turn tail and run, but to her surprise, he squared his shoulders and slunk into the Fairwen cottage as if he was entering the maw of a beast.
Perhaps he really did want to learn how to grow tomatoes.
Azalea moved to follow him, but Da placed a hand on her shoulder and shook his head. “Let them speak,” he said.
“It’s better that way.”
That confused her further, but she didn’t press. She followed her da to the garden where they picked berries in silence, simply enjoying each other’s company.
The matron of Aster Carmine’s Blessed Home had been a kind, gentle woman. Echo had spent most of his days believing it a facade, a porcelain mask that would crack under duress. Kind, gentle people did not willingly place themselves in the underworld. Surely she was hiding a distasteful secret. He would heckle her until that thin, holy veneer shattered and she revealed herself for the shrieking banshee she was.
But not once, in all the years he knew her, did she crack. She was disappointed, yes; exasperated, on occasion; but never hateful. She looked at him like she could see past all of his cracks and his sharp edges, and find the terrified, lonely, angry boy beneath.
Seeing Anna Fairwen sitting by the open window, eyes closed to soak in the sun, peace drawn over her fair face, throttled Echo right back to those days. He was a little boy again, standing before the matron with his hands behind his back, caught nicking coppers from the locals.
Anna’s blue eyes blinked open, and she turned her gaze to him. “Hello,” she said.
Echo swallowed. “Hello.” He hoped she had forgotten him in her latest lapse. It would make everything much simpler.
“I know you,” Anna said quietly. “What you said was cruel.”
Of course she wouldn’t have forgotten. Life didn’t like to be simple.
“It was,” Echo said hoarsely.
She didn’t speak for a while, and neither did Echo. Words hadn’t come to him easily in front of the matron, either.
Anna’s gaze trailed back to the window. “Your words made me think,” she said. “I have not been a good mother. I remember that much.”
Echo said nothing to comfort her.
“I get glimpses, sometimes. I remember my husband working into the dead of night. My daughter caring for me when she wasn’t much taller than the table. I told myself all kinds of things while I lay in my bed. Get up. Care for her. She needs you.”
Get up, Echo’s mind had screamed as he’d laid among a wreckage of burning wood, acrid fumes welling in his lungs. Get her out. She needs you.
“My body would not listen,” Anna murmured. “My mind would not listen.”
You can stop this, whispered the voices as he’d kindled the first spark in the Valence manor. You don’t have to go this far.
He hadn’t listened.
“Aleks stayed with me and loved me when he deserved somebody much better. So did little ’Zalie.” Anna’s gaze was more than lucid as it bore into him; it was knowing. “We both have much to make up for, don’t you think?”
Echo’s mouth was dry. “I don’t know if it’s possible.” There was enough blood on his hands to last an age.
Anna smiled. “Perhaps not. But forgiveness is something given, not earned.”
“Then why bother trying?”
“I don’t see any point in continuing to walk down a path that will only destroy you, no? It doesn’t seem wise, nor particularly fun.”
He wasn’t sure what to say to that. If there was anything to say to that.
“What’s your name?” Anna said.
The prompt was gentle and without pressure, but it drove the breath from Echo’s lungs. It was a choice, he knew. Something that would change him.
“Aron,” he admitted. “My name is Aron.”
Anna rose to her feet. There was a timeless elegance to the motion, as if she were a queen, the rustic cottage her royal demesne.
“Well, Aron,” she said, smiling, “would you like to help me cook?”
Azalea pushed inside the cottage and nearly dropped her basket of berries.
Echo was standing side-by-side with her mother in the kitchen, crouched over a table with a rolling pin in hand, flour scattered all over his arms and smearing down one cheek. An apron embroidered with little colored wildflowers was tied around his waist. Asters, he looked downright domestic. How badly Azalea wanted to laugh.
He looked up at the noise of her entry. To her surprise, he didn’t glare or snarl in embarrassment, but grinned boyishly, waving the rolling pin. “Why, if it isn’t the small child. Care to make yourself useful?”
Azalea placed her berry basket on the table. “That apron suits you,” she said innocently.
“Brings out my working eye and the scar on my face, yes, I’ve heard it all.”
“My apron is pink. Would you like to try it?”
“This one works just fine, thank you.” He pinched at the dough and rolled it again. “Anna, do I look fabulous?”
Her ma chuckled, warm and spirited and full of life. “Yes, Aron, very fabulous.”
“Then I’ll stick with the white.”
Azalea blinked. Echo was on good terms with her mother, then. The apology went well. Surprising, really, given his earlier performance, but she wouldn’t question it. If the people she loved got along with each other, she couldn’t ask for anything more.
“Smells delicious,” Da said as he carried in his own pail of produce pail. He closed the cottage door behind him, then tossed a ripe tomato at Echo, who caught it deftly.
There was only one thing missing from the scene. One person, really.
Azalea chewed on her lower lip nervously. “If you don’t mind,” she blurted, “there’s one more guest I’d like to bring.”
Ma raised her head, and Da glanced at her.
“Wesley Geppett?” Da guessed.
“Oh!” Azalea said, surprised. “Well, no.”
She’d briefly forgotten that her da knew Wes at all. It felt like a lifetime ago when she’d snuck her dear friend out of the Academy for the Tappingfest of Maple Point—a lively festival celebrating the thaw of winter as it gave flow to the precious, rich maple syrup that surrounded the town.
For three days, Wes had stayed with her family. He’d whittled little gnomes with her father and played the lute while her mother sang. He seemed surprised and enamored by the smallest things—the loud, rustic music in the streets, the way villagers tied ribbons on barren trees to dress them with color, even the basic act of families eating dinner together.
That time had been so warm and simple. She would give anything to see Wes smile like that again.
“No,” Azalea repeated, schooling her wandering thoughts. “But—someone I’d like for you to meet, anyway. Is that alright?”
Azalea found Azure pacing right on the outskirts of Maple Point, sniffing gingerly at the maple trees and counting random numbers across his fingers. At her request, he had dressed down—slightly. He wore a traveler’s tunic instead of his thick furs, and had settled for light leather armor, leaving his precious dragonscale plating with Heidi.
The greatest change was, of course, that he had put away his mask. That had been a difficult fight; he was noticeably uncomfortable revealing his bare face, claiming that to show the visage of a human is deceit when I am nothing but an animal. But people did not wear masks at the dinner table in Airlea, especially not such frightening ones, so Azalea had insisted.
“What are you doing?” she asked, joining her brother under the tree’s rusted boughs.
Azure looked up, his fingers stopping. “I think I’m nervous,” he said plainly. “So I am calming myself.”
“By counting while breathing,” Azalea said approvingly. He must have learned such a constructive technique from Heidi.
Azure shook his head. “I practice arithmetic. Or recite a passage from the most recent book I’ve conquered.” He tilted his head. “Thirteen eight times is one hundred and four, did you know that? The same number that died in the Lightbringer’s lynchings. Or so said The Formation of the Lightbringer and His Rebellion.”
Azalea paled, yet again caught between horror and admiration. She could only pray that Azure’s morbid interests would not rise at the dinner table, particularly in front of Ma.
“That’s, that’s interesting,” she stammered. “You’re very good at math.”
Azure brightened. “You think so? Perhaps Ma would—”
“Azure, um, remember,” Azalea interrupted. “Ma is…I mean, we want…that is, I’m sure she would really love to know that you’re alive. It would make her very happy.”
Azure quieted. He seemed to pick up the hesitant note in her voice, because he frowned. “Alright.”
“But—but I think, I think we have to be careful. She’s not well. And…if she has a great shock, then it might make her even more sick. So…so…” She struggled to find the right words. “We might have to introduce you as somebody different. Until we know that it’s safe for her.”
Azure said nothing for a long moment.
“Ma won’t know that it’s me?” he finally said, unusually quiet.
Azalea’s heart ached, but she nodded. “Just for now. We will tell her, I promise. But we—we just have to find the right time to do it.”
Azure brooded for a moment, boring holes into the maple trunk with his gaze “Alright,” he said. “You know best.”
Azalea didn’t. She hardly knew anything at all. She was leading him blindly and desperately hoping that nothing would go wrong.
But she couldn’t let Ma and Da go another moment without seeing their living son. Even if they didn’t know it was him.
Without hesitation, Azalea took Azure’s hand and led him to the Fairwen cottage.
Echo was setting the table when Azalea stepped over the threshold, Azure in tow. Although Ma and Da hadn’t prepared for a feast, the spread of food was no less resplendent: herb-roasted mutton, steaming mushroom tart topped with golden-brown cheese, fresh and crisp salad, savory garlic flatbread, honeyed nuts and sugared berries. The dishes filled the cottage with decadent fragrance, the kind that Azalea hadn’t smelled in a long time.
Da turned over empty crates to serve as chairs. The seating was cluttered around the table, but that in itself was a small blessing. Azalea had never seen their home so lively.
She nudged Azure further into the cottage until Ma and Da looked up. Da nodded to greet the new arrival, while Ma gave an unfaltering smile.
“You must be ’Zalie’s guest,” she said. “Welcome.”
Azalea expected Azure to burst into a dramatic introduction, or perhaps drop into a gallant bow, the herolike way he enjoyed as a child. He did neither. He stared wordlessly at their parents, those clear, Fairwen-green eyes unmoving.
“You have grey in your hair,” he said numbly, looking to Da.
It was a rude comment from a stranger, but Azalea understood. Hadn’t she thought the same thing when she looked at her da, really looked, for the first time in years? Their parents had always seemed so beautiful and impervious when they were children, immune even to the passage of time.
Apparently, Da’s ghost in the Noadic Range had looked ten years younger.
“I’m Aleks, and my wife’s name is Anna,” was all Da said to the awkward comment, but he did lift a brow in Azalea’s direction.
She stumbled forward. “This is—this person is—”
Then she paused. Oh no. She’d been so preoccupied with planning what to say to Echo to drag him with her, planning what to say to Da in her apology, and planning what to say to Azure so he would be discrete, that she had completely forgotten a very important detail
Who was Azure supposed to be?
Panicked, she looked at Azure. He looked back with wide eyes that seemed just as panicked, but he managed to step forward and thump his chest.
“Hello,” he said. The forceful timbre of his voice, usually so confident and self-assured, was surprisingly uncertain. “I’m Azalea’s dragon-training instructor.”
Ma blinked. “A what?”
“The dragon of her spirit,” Echo said hurriedly. “He’s a combat instructor.”
“Oh?” Azure said. Then: “Yes. I’m a combat instructor.”
Azalea expected Ma to flinch at the mention of combat, but she only smiled. “Thank you.”
“Thank you?” Azure repeated, puzzled.
“You must have looked after ’Zalie in her lessons.”
“Oh,” said Azure, lifting his chin. “Yes, that’s right. She’s quite marvelous. You should see how she looks when she waltzes about the sky, loosing volleys with her firearm. A shieldmaiden of legend, a risen phoenix, raining down tongues of fire!”
Such fire was, in fact, consuming Azalea’s face. “That’s—that’s a big exaggeration,” she mumbled, shrinking into her chair. “It’s mostly because of the magitech. Windsoles and starshooters are quite incredible.”
Azure clapped her on the back with a hearty laugh. “And look, humility! Even a fool knows that a sword is only as powerful as the one who wields it.”
“The Lady Stormrider,” Echo intoned dramatically. “How kind of her to grace us with her presence.”
Azalea buried her face in her hands. She wasn’t sure how she had acquired two brothers, but here she was.
Thankfully, the conversation lulled as they turned to the food. Azalea helped herself the colorful array, humming happily at the decadent, woodsy taste of mutton and mushrooms, rich with oil and fresh herbs. It was good to eat. It was good to be alive, really.
After the first few bites, Ma turned to Azure. “I don’t believe we caught your name,” she prompted.
Azure’s fork, which was very stiffly fisted in his grip, froze over his plate. Echo glanced up. Azalea tried not to flinch.
“Ah,” said Azure. “Yes. Names.”
He looked helplessly at Azalea, who only blinked back at him. Unless he wanted to go by Milk Bun, she didn’t have any ideas to contribute.
“Hatchling,” Azure said uncertainly. “Fleshy Hatchling.”
“Oh,” said Ma, eyes wide.
Azalea stared at him in disbelief. Surely he hadn’t just provided the name that the dragons gave him. He couldn’t have invented anything better?
“He’s jesting, of course,” Echo said smoothly. “He goes by Ander.”
Azalea breathed out a silent sigh of relief, and even Azure seemed to relax. “Yes, Ander,” he said. “A fine name.”
Don’t say that as if it’s the first time you’ve heard it! Azalea thought.
“Or so my mother says,” Azure suddenly added, as if he’d realized the same thing. “Or said. She’s dead now. As many parents are.”
Azalea cringed. For a moment, Ma only watched him, her clear blue eyes betraying no emotion.
“I see,” she finally said. “Wherever she is watching, she must be very proud of you.”
Azure nodded awkwardly and continued to spear his food clumsily, which made Azalea flinch again. The long years had certainly done nothing to refine his table manners. But Da didn’t seem to mind, and Ma only slid more food onto his plate.
More questions were asked. Where he’d trained; how he’d grown up; how he’d met Azalea. Azure answered them with a brutal honesty that unneved Azalea, but to her relief, he always skirted just shy of anything that would give away his identity. Then the questions turned on Echo, and his answers were even more surprising.
“I’m a mercenary by trade,” he said plainly at Ma’s prompting. “Born an orphan, raised a street rat.”
“That must have been difficult,” Ma said.
Echo shrugged. “It’s not so bad if it’s all you know.”
“You like it, then? Being a mercenary.”
“I like the freedom.” He waited for a moment, as if considering his words. “But I don’t like much else. Most people ask for harmless things, but the ones who don’t…well, it’s distasteful to be the tool of a brute.”
Azalea stared. She had improved at reading Echo over the past weeks, and she was certain: not a single lie had crossed his lips.
The sun began to dip as dinner came to an end, bathing the cottage in a warm glow. Azalea helped her da wash the dishes while Azure wiped down the table. It should have been strange to see the Dragon Whisperer involved in such domesticity, but it wasn’t. He fit naturally, like a missing puzzle piece finally slotted into place.
Ma and Da walked them all to the door once the cleanup had finished.
“Thank you, Ander,” Ma said. “It was a pleasure to meet you.” She reached for his hand and squeezed it. “You’re welcome to our house anytime.”
Azure stared down. “Oh,” he said in an oddly small voice. “Thank you.”
Ma moved to release him, but in a blink, Azure had thrown his arms around her. With his unkempt hair and thick tunic, he looked a bit like an overgrown dog smothering its owner. Yet the sight made Azalea’s heart warm gently all the same.
“Thank you,” Azure repeated. “I’m glad you lived.”
To Azalea’s relief, Ma did not look startled or unsettled. She reached up and smoothed a hand over his hair, face softened with a smile.
“You and ’Zalie worked to protect us,” she said. Her eyes glittered at Echo. “And Aron, of course.”
Echo huffed lightly and looked away.
“So in a way, I should be thanking you that we lived.” Ma pulled back a little to look straight into Azure’s eyes. “Thank you for looking after ’Zalie.”
Azure had always been so bold and independent, but in that moment, he seemed like he never wanted to let go. “I’ll visit,” he blurted, gripping her hand tightly. He looked at Da. “I’ll see you again.”
Ma’s smile returned, softer than ever. “We would like that.”
Azure gave a final nod—first to their parents, then to Azalea and Echo. Then he turned and departed the cottage. Azalea watched her ma’s face for any sign of disturbance, but found none. As she watched Azure’s figure slowly shrink down the road until he disappeared, she wondered: perhaps the day when they revealed everything was much closer than she expected.
The Hunter’s Guild was quiet. Most of the injured had either recovered, or left to recuperate among their families. Several of the cabinets that lined the far wall were open, lined with green fronds and white blossoms. Notecards from well-wishers and thankful citizens were scattered among the bouquets.
Azalea walked past Halcyon Yuden, who was seated at a table in the corner, sipping at a bowl of chicken and rice porridge. She knocked on the door to the guildmaster’s study.
“Shouldn’t you be resting?” came Nicolina’s crisp voice.
Azalea took a deep breath. “I want to ask you something important.”
“If this is about a bonus for saving the world, I’ll warn you right now. Don’t expect all that much. Airlean coffers aren’t exactly thriving.”
“I’m still considered a Hunter?”
Nicolina was quiet for a moment. “Hm,” she finally said. “I guess we do need to talk.”
Azalea took that as permission and slid into the guildmaster’s study. She found Nicolina standing on a mat before her window, stretching her arms and craning her neck carefully.
“If you ever have to spend a lifetime at a desk, Fairwen,” Nicolina said wryly, “remember to stretch. Constantly. Your back will thank you for it later.”
“Oh,” Azalea said uncertainly. “How old are you, Guildmaster?”
“I thought you weren’t past twenty.”
Nicolina arched a brow. “So I was ten years old when I became Guildmaster?”
Azalea blushed. “I never really thought about it.”
“It’s flattering, I’ll give you that.” Nicolina stepped away from the mat and returned to her elevated chair. She laced her fingers as she rested her arms on the desk. “Now. Hunter matters.”
“You know, I never filed your resignation.”
“I usually don’t if I believe the Hunter is about to die.” She tilted her head down. “Hunters are often the breadwinners. It would be cruel to take away the only small comfort for their widows or children.”
“Oh,” Azalea whispered.
“Should I file it?”
Nicolina’s lips quirked. “Your resignation.”
“Well, I,” Azalea stammered, “I could hardly take it back.”
“Why—huh? Because I should keep my word.”
“What if I never heard you say you wished to resign?”
“That’s silly,” Azalea said, puzzled. “I definitely told you. And turned in my sigil.”
Nicolina sighed, a rough noise with equal parts exasperation and affection. “Asters, Fairwen. You lack every kind of subtlety. I’m saying that if you want to, you can stay a Hunter.”
“But I disobeyed your direct order. I should be indicted before a tribunal.”
“Saving the world has a miraculous way of repairing your reputation,” Nicolina said dryly. “Do you want to go before a tribunal?”
“Not really,” Azalea mumbled.
“Then you won’t. Saves me the paperwork.”
Nicolina reached into one of the desk drawers and withdrew something gold and glimmering. She placed it face-up. The soft edges of a Hunter’s sigil gleamed beneath the window light.
“It’s your choice, Fairwen,” she said softly. “No one can make it for you.”
With steady fingers, Azalea reached out and clasped the sigil. She examined it distantly. She could remember wanting this so badly, needing it so her life meant something. Now, it was just an emblem. A pretty emblem, and a meaningful one—but she didn’t need it anymore.
“I don’t know, Guildmaster,” she admitted. “I don’t think I’m a fighter.”
“You took down a Five.”
“To protect the people I love. I would have rather not have fought at all.”
She expected to be rebuked, for refusing to fight was a privilege that couldn’t be afforded. But Nicolina only nodded thoughtfully.
“Then what do you think about becoming Guildmaster?” she said.
Azalea nearly fell over. “What?”
“I’ve thought about you quite a bit, Fairwen. You’re a puzzling one. Talented with firearms, yet you abhor bloodshed. You train your memory like a scholar, yet you can’t sit still. A gentle soul with an uncontrollable spirit. Nothing about you seems to make any sense.”
“But…but, a guildmaster?”
“In a moment of crisis, you kept morale and mustered an army. What else does a guildmaster need to do?” At Azalea’s bewildered look, Nicolina smiled. “Cosette told me.”
“Corpse Princess. She was quite shocked when a flood of reinforcements came out of nowhere.”
“That wasn’t my doing,” Azalea mumbled.
“Their singing of Lady Stormrider’s praises says otherwise.” Nicolina leaned back. “Don’t forget that you’re the only Hunter in living history who has quoted the Handbook verbatim. And you’ve gone to the Academy, so you’re familiar with nobles and how to handle them. Objectively speaking, Fairwen, you’re quite the candidate.”
Azalea was speechless. She couldn’t fathom a world where Nicolina Cotton was not sitting upon the guildmaster’s chair. Of course, that day would come. Everybody aged and moved on, and Nicolina deserved a restful retirement more than anybody. But for Azalea to take that seat?
Nicolina seemed to read the overwhelming direction of her thoughts. “There’s no rush,” the guildmaster said. “You can stay in your current position. But you’d take on more aide duties and be out in the field less. Like Sasha, except useful.”
When Azalea didn’t reply, Nicolina continued.
“You only have one decision to make right now. Do you want to stay in the guild, or do you want to leave?”
The sigil shone on the desk.
If I sacrificed my life for you, it was not so that you could become me in my stead, Azure had said.
Azalea could become anything. She could walk away from the guild. She could put down her starshooter, shuck the title of Lady Stormrider, start a bakery and forget about the battlefield. Azure had freed her.
But at the same time, something gripped her heart that she could not shake. The sudden courage when she’d met the small Harvenfest children of Northelm. The protective fire when she’d seen Wes’s dirt-smudged face under his helm. The raw determination to restore her brother, who believed himself to be lost.
Understanding finally settled in Azalea’s mind, a feeling that she had never been able to voice.
Azalea closed her fingers over the sigil and stored it at her waist, back where it belonged.
She saw Nicolina exhale. “So, you’ve made your choice,” the guildmaster said.
“I’m not a hunter,” Azalea said simply. “But I like to know that the people I love are safe.”
“You’re a healer.”
“I’m not a healer,” Azalea said, puzzled.
“Not a physician like Thom. But you do like to see things restored. Cities. Relationships. People. And you stop at nothing until it’s done.” Nicolina smiled. “The guild couldn’t be more fortunate to have you back, Fairwen.”
“But I expect to be listened to next time,” Nicolina continued, face dropping into a stern look.
“Even if my decision ended up saving the kingdom?” Azalea said innocently.
Nicolina sighed and rubbed her temples. “Unbelievable. You’re becoming just like Yuden and Caelute. Myths have mercy, how does this happen every time?”
“How does what happen?” Azalea said, still with those big, unrepentent eyes.
“I’m not praising you for making harebrained decisions, even if you get rewarded for it. Reinforces bad behavior, that’s all it does.” Nicolina shooed her with a hand. “Now get out of here, you scoundrel.”
Azalea smothered a grin as she stepped outside the study, closing the door gently behind her. She strode across the guild to the exit. Despite the weight of the sigil at her waist, her steps felt lighter than ever. The door opened, and she greeted the clear, brilliant skies above Mythaven, the city she loved.
Season Two: Rise of Atlantis.
A forgotten kingdom will rise from
the depths of the ocean to claim an old
promise, dredging up shadows of the past
for Sethis, Halcyon, and Karis.
IT'S DONE!! at 182,600 words, the Scarlet Rider is my first completed original novel! :] Hope you've enjoyed the ride, and
please recommend it to your fantasy-loving friends since it's free to read
Some extras (concept art and closing thoughts) will be posted later this week. probably Saturday. when my brain isn't scrambled and i have some time to keysmash some things down. but all in all, just thank you I love this world and its characters, and hope to have the opportunity to explore more by writing a second book.
Thank you for reading 'Zalie's story! For those who want offline access, I'll look to release an eBook on iBooks and Kindle in May, and crowdfund a physical print run in June!