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Den of Blades and Briars: Chapter 21

The Captive

I wasn’t certain if I’d taken my eyes off Ari since we found a small cave built in the ravine wall. To their detriment. Such a simple, almost lazy statement, but I’d been struck. Like hooks to the scales of a fleeing eel, the words kept reeling me back to that moment.

Was it the way his amber eyes had shadowed black, almost as though ink spilled through the hint of gold? Was it the tension pulsing in his jaw? Was it the undeniable, abrupt need to tell him it was untrue?

What a foolish thought. How was I to know if loving a man like Ari Sekundär was detrimental or not? I did not love the man.

Even still, I couldn’t seem to stop studying him. It was a small blessing he was turned away, lost in whatever irritating thoughts constantly ran through his head as he watched a cascade of rain spill over the small cave mouth we’d used as a temporary shelter.

His hair was damp. The water shaded the wheat color to soil brown, and I hated how I rather liked the way it naturally curled when wet around the sharp points of his ears. He’d relieved his shoulders of the heavy, leather straps carrying his seax and knives, and without his belts, the way he hooked his thumbs in the tops of his trousers tugged them too low on his damn hips.

Ever so slightly, I could see the carve of his stomach, his waist, the way all the strength of his body cut a line down . . .

I swallowed and turned away with such deliberateness, my shin scraped over the rocks.

An angry twist of hunger in my stomach gave me the excuse to focus elsewhere. I dug through the skin pouch. A few tree nuts, a sliver of wild honeycomb, and one oatcake left.

“We’ll need to fish or scavenge berries tomorrow,” I said. “The way you eat, there isn’t enough to get us through the night and the morning.”

Fishing should be simple enough, and I wasn’t one to boast, but I was sly with a knife. Hooks were simpler, but I enjoyed using a blade. The challenge of it, the satisfaction when it was successful. I held onto misty memories of my father teaching me to sneak up behind the fish, then deducing how the illusion of the water would warp where the fish truly was beneath the surface.

We were a few lengths from the Bridge Isles. Water was plentiful with streams and ponds and the inlet. The trouble was, with the sea storms rolling in, the rain came down in heavy sheets, slicing through the Mossgrove like damp knives.

I slumped with a bit of dread. Tonight my curse would take hold and it would be bleeding frigid. Another bit of trouble was I’d used the last of the sleeping herbs on Ari two nights ago.

I could only hope those wretched nightmares would keep Ari too locked in his own horror that he would not notice me slipping out, then slipping back in tonight. I was only ever gone for a few clock tolls, but there was an aggravating feeling that one of these nights, I would not be so fortunate.

I glanced over my shoulder. Ari hadn’t budged from his study of the rain.

“Ari,” I snapped. “Did you hear me?”

He looked at me, a piece of the shadow I saw earlier still in his eyes. “No. I suppose I didn’t care to. What did you say?”

“I refuse to tell you now.”

“Forgive me,” he said, still with mirth, and I doubted it was a sincere apology. “I should not have cut at you for no reason, it was lazy and habitual on my part. I’ll do better to ensure my biting retorts are more thought out in the future. Allow me to rephrase: my dearest menace, what is it that you said?”

Hells. He made me want to grin while I screamed in frustration.

“I said we need food.” I held up the near-empty leather pouch and dared cross the small cave to his side. “I can get us some fish in the morning if you don’t mind a rather meager meal tonight.”

Ari nodded, still not fully paying attention. “I don’t mind.”

That was it? No claim he would fish better than me? No comment on needing to share a meal with his little menace?

I should let it go, but . . .

“Does something trouble you?”

Ari regarded me for a few breaths. “A great many things trouble me.”

“I’m sure,” I said with a scoff. “But you seem distracted.”

“Saga?” Ari lifted one brow. “I fear I may be drifting to an untimely death. Are you asking me if I’m . . . all right?”

“Must everything be a taunt?” I tossed my hands in the air. The man couldn’t be bleeding reasoned with. “Forget I said anything.”

Two steps, and my heart stalled in my chest. Ari’s callused hand curled around my wrist. His touch was a flame. A burden. A shackle. It was a calm I did not want. My eyes fell to the place he held to me, then slowly lifted to his eyes.

“I am thinking of what you said about your mother,” he said softly.

“My mother? She’s dead.”

“Yes.” He released me and looked to the rain again. “Mock me if you’d like, but you said she died giving birth to you, and that is a thought that has my attention. My queen, she is set to have a child any day. I’ve only been waiting for word.”

The Ettan queen was fierce and powerful and deadly. Rune had mentioned once that Ari and the woman had a close relationship. What that meant, I didn’t know.

“You fear for her?”

He shrugged and simply stared at the rain.

“You love her, don’t you?”

“A great deal, I’m afraid.”

“Don’t tell me you had some kind of affair with the queen and the child is—”

“Saga.” Ari closed his eyes. “Disrespect me all you’d like, but do not disrespect my queen by questioning her loyalty to her husband.”

His voice was calm, but jagged. By his tone, for a moment, I could see why he’d once been a king.

I dipped my chin. “As you say.”

“Thank you.”

This despondent, pensive Ari was disconcerting. “Women have children all the time. They don’t all die, Ari. Why do you fret so much?”

“Against Elise’s judgment and perhaps mine, I’m afraid my king and queen became the people I trust most.”

“Sounds a great deal like you consider them friends.” I chuckled. “I wonder why you hesitate to plainly call them such.”

“A reason I’ll let you continually wonder about,” he said, no jest in his voice. “But they are, and I find myself concerned for my queen is all. Now, I will not be available to learn if she is well, if the child has come, if it is a princess or prince.”

He did not deserve my admiration, but he had it for a fleeting moment. “Your loyalty is . . . it is one tolerable thing about you, Ambassador.”

I slid off the ledge and hurried back into the cave before he could look at me and see the flush in my cheeks.

“Why did you fight with Astrid, Saga?” he asked softly. “In the East, why did you stand against us?”

I didn’t answer as I laid out my dirty travel cloak to use as a cover over the stones. Once I had my knees tucked against my chest, I said, “A reason I’ll let you continually wonder about.”

Later, when the cursed compulsion to shift came, I paused to study Ari as he slept once again. A scowl on his face, arms folded over his chest, a blade nearby.

He was a conundrum. Words that flew off his tongue as daggers or sugar, there was no in between. A man who dreamed of terrible things, and worried over a queen he valued, yet was terrified that his royals had chosen him as a friend.

My body jerked. I stepped outside and stripped my clothing, tucking them near a boulder, then sprinted toward the rain-drenched shadows of the trees.

For the first time since meeting Ari, the shadow voice was drowned out by thoughts of how my master’s nearness was burning a hole through my heart.


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