Ember, I love you more than anything, you know that?
She stared at the back of Enoch’s boots. All this time, her parents had known. The argument they’d had that day when she had asked about the truebloods. They had known. Truebloods are the heirs to their thrones. That made her a princess. It made them all royalty.
More than anything else, she hoped her parents were safe.
She had started the second fire. When they had turned back to look at the Citadel, it wasn’t just the blue of magefire. It was hers to, the unnatural golden flames licking at those stones. But everything Professor Coquelin said— Why did she always—
There was a dead twig on the road, and as they plodded along, she kicked it. It clattered off the path and she scowled at it. Cassius shot her a look, but even his expression was shuttered and dull.
“Now you’re all so bloody quiet,” Enoch said, glancing back over his shoulder towards them. His stern features were set in a frown. “Ravens pick out your tongues?” He looked so severe and yet, in that moment, she almost swore she noticed concern.
Ugh, it was probably her imagination. No kidnapper felt sympathetic about the kids he’d grabbed and tied up. That would be stupid.
She turned her scowl unto him. “I thought you wanted the quiet.”
Enoch grimaced. “Now it’s creepy. I might as well be lugging giant dolls with me.”
Artemesa chirped from her stance beside Cassius, but otherwise was preoccupied with nudging his palms. She had already heard him mutter several times, “I don’t have food for you, Mesa.” But Artemesa was persistent.
At least one of them had energy and drive for something. Stars above, she hoped Artemesa wouldn’t starve. The poor thing had already been through enough.
When he received no response, save from the dragonling, Enoch grunted and turned back away.
As soon as he had, she stuck out her tongue at him.
Her legs ached and there was a persistent stitch in her side that had become her constant companion. She was exhausted and she wanted to rest, but when Cassius had tried to complain once, Enoch had merely tugged at their rope and said nothing.
What about home, and their parents? What about the expedition? What was going on with Mishal and Isadora? Were they okay?
She didn’t know how long had passed, only that the sun was behind darkening clouds and she was relieved for the respite—she and Cassius were both now victims of the sun’s irritable eye and there were red splotches of burn on both their cheeks, though thankfully their disgusting clothes protected most of their skin despite the foul heat that it brought upon them. She missed changing clothes.
Artemesa halted and her ears began to swivel around like a startled horse’s. Cassius stopped with her, which yanked on Enoch’s cord. He turned with an opened mouth, and then stopped at the sight of Artemesa’s head wheeling backwards, nostrils flaring now in tandem with her ears. Everyone else had come to a halt as well.
“What the devil’s she doing?” Enoch asked, gesturing with a large, calloused hand to Artemesa.
“Mesa?” Cassius asked.
Artemesa swung her head back around and pressed her snout into Cassius’ palm, and began to trill low in her throat. It sounded like a warning.
As everyone grew quiet, the sound of hoofbeats in the distance began to rise gradually in volume.
She turned to Enoch and held out her hands. “You ought to take the ropes off, or whoever is coming will be suspicious,” she said.
He eyed her, nose wrinkled in a sneer. “Not if they’re bandits or highwaymen. I reckon they’d try to steal you then, and cold stars above, I would not fight them for the lot of you.”
“What if they’re not?” Rowan asked, eyes glittering and hard. “What if they’re just regular people?”
Enoch gave him a disgruntled look. “Why, so you four can run off?”
She glanced down at her hands. What was the point? They’d nearly died on their own, and the Citadel had burned. There were people looking for them. She was never yours anyway.
“No.” She met the full weight of Enoch’s gaze and didn’t shrink away. “I’d swear on it. I’d swear on the Twin Eyes and the Sky Mother. I’d swear on anything.”
The rest were now watching her with both curiosity and confusion. Enoch’s expression had mellowed into an almost concealed surprise.
“You don’t seem the religious sort,” Enoch said, cautious.
“I’m not,” she said. “But I know someone who is, and I think she’s just about the finest person, and I believe her.” She felt some of her guard chipping away, and she couldn’t stop her shoulders from slumping miserably. “Please.”
The hoofbeats were louder now. Enoch glanced at the others, who all, in mute agreement, nodded.
He exhaled deeply and pulled out a dagger—the one he’d threatened Cassius with—and approached her. In a few quick sawing motions, the rope fell away from her wrists. The skin beneath was chaffed and red, but the groove marks weren’t deep. She flexed her hands and rolled her wrists.
Then she tried to catch Enoch’s eye, but he was already moving on to the others, gaze downcast and expression unreadable.
As soon as Enoch cut the rope from Artemesa’s neck, Cassius waved his hands towards her. “Go hide somewhere,” he told her. “Be safe.”
“Now you wait—” Enoch started, but Artemesa was already bounding away like a frightened deer, little fledging wings kiting out at her sides as she disappeared into the long grass of a meadow spread out to the side of the road. Ember watched the waving grass that marked her path but, after a moment, it stilled, and the grass only moved in the shallow breeze washing over them.
Cassius levelled Enoch was an innocent glance, as though to say who, me? “Did you really want someone to question what she was doing here?”
Enoch growled, but the hoofbeats were thunderous now. When she turned, the lines of the riders approaching grew on the horizon.