Dominique stops only to make sure Azure’s shackles are properly secured, and he barely bothers to make sure that I’ve mounted a horse. He seems to understand exactly how much power he holds over me, with Azure only meters away yet still completely out of my reach. I hate knowing the truth, but I am powerless to stop him if he hurts her.
Yet, despite his obvious power, he seems uneasy. The moment he is seated, he snaps the reins, and the two frail-looking horses break into a trot. His eyes hold a too-bright glint that I know surprisingly well: fear.
In the dim red light of the moon, it’s nearly impossible to see the Root. I am already lost in thought, sinking into the memory of my conversation with Azure, before she’d passed out once more.
I’d run to her frozen body, my heart pounding wildly - from running or from anger, I wasn’t certain - as I knelt over her. Her hand was solid ice, and I couldn’t even move it from where it lay in her lap. That small fact alone sent fury burning through me. “Azure,” I’d whispered, not wanting Dominique’s guards to hear me speak. “Come back to me.”
I didn’t know where I drew the strength, but I managed to melt the ice off of her - a painstakingly slow process. As the last of it vanished from her lips, she gasped, sucking in a breath. Relief poured through me. “What happened?” she asked unevenly.
She was soaked - her hair was dripping, her dress clung to her skin distractingly, and her eyelashes were stuck together like the arms of a starfish. I touched my fingers to her face, and there was a gentle blue glow that came from the place where our skin met.
“He froze you,” I whispered hoarsely, gesturing to Dominique. “Azure, I’m so sorry-”
She gasped out an ironic laugh, and a sort of crazed humor bloomed in her eyes. “It’s not your fault. It’s his.”
I caught her hand, and her blue eyes locked with mine. She took a long, shaking inhale, then said, “When he kissed me-”
“It doesn’t mean anything,” I promised, brushing my knuckles over her cheek.
She watched me for another moment, her brows drawn together, and then nodded.
I was helpless - helpless to save the girl I loved. I’d just failed her, not once, but twice.
And I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was about to fail her again.
My horse starts into a jaunting trot, forcing me back into reality. I glance around on instinct, wanting to tell Azure something, anything - or maybe just see her face, her smile.
But she’s not there. Of course she’s not.
I turn my attention back to the road. Dark clouds have passed over the moon, obscuring what was left of the light we did have. Maybe, in a life in which I’d never had magic, Azure and I would be doing this together because we’d chosen to - riding down the Root on horseback together, alone in the moonlight. Maybe we could have traveled somewhere when I finally got up the nerve to ask her to marry me. Maybe we could have raced each other against the wind like we had when we were young.
Now there’s a chance I will never get to marry her. The thought is unexpectedly painful. My hands tighten on the horse’s reins, and it whinnies exasperatedly in response. I automatically slacken my grip.
It had taken too long for me to find a way for me to control my magic. If not for that, maybe we wouldn’t be here now. But if my magic had been discovered, what would we have done? Where would we have gone? Would Azure have been doomed to be on the run for her entire life, because of me?
Paeline’s doe-brown eyes flash against my eyelids. You love my sissy, and you’re the only person in the world who I trust her with. I wonder what she will think of me when she hears the news. If she trusted me with someone so precious, then I’ve failed her every bit as much as I’ve failed Azure.
I look down at the horse I am mounted on. It’s probably a chevalvert, judging by its proud gait and spotted coat. Her body is bony and thin, her mane dirty and full of brambles, as if she has been sleeping in the wild.
“Her name is Ruby,” says a calm voice to my right.
I glance over wildly, half expecting it to be Kai who had spoken - a person who might as well be from another life. I realize it was Rolind, watching the horse with something like worry in his eyes. “There has been a shortage of animal feed lately at the capital,” the boy goes on. “Most of it is grown and harvested in southern Tridoe, but they have closed their gates to us. If we cannot negotiate with them, we will have to find something else to feed our steeds.”
“Why are you telling me this?” If he expects me to engage in social niceties after everything he has helped Dominique do to Azure, then he’s fooling himself.
Rolind does not respond. Thunder rolls somewhere in the distance, an unusually ominous sound. I glance up at the sky. Dark clouds have clogged the horizon.