Taken from Chapter Twenty-Eight:
Three Little Words
“What are you doing here, Emerala?”
She scowls at him, leaning into the rough-hewn stone of the shop to her left and crossing her arms over her chest. “You dragged me here, largely against my will.”
He groans. “Not here, here. I mean, what are you doing with Derek, all trussed up in someone else’s clothes? I thought you didn’t want the crown.”
“I didn’t say that,” she reminds him. “I said I didn’t want it with you.”
She’d meant the words to hurt and they do. She can see it in his eyes. He falters, a muscle working in his jaw. “Why not?”
“Because you’re not a good man.”
He sniffs. “And Derek is?”
“He is. You know he is, Evander.”
“Maybe. He’ll never love you.”
This time, it’s her turn to laugh. “Oh, and you do?”
“Aye.” The answer that slips out from between his lips is immediate—a reflex, more than a thought. For a moment, he looks stricken, as if he hadn’t meant to say it. Gooseflesh rises along her arms beneath his stare—sharper and clearer than she’s ever seen it. She flattens her palms against the stone at her back.
“Is this another one of your games?”
“Not tonight,” he says. “Not right now.”
“Then say what you mean, just this once.”
His golden eyes meet hers. She can see him thinking it over, turning the words on his tongue, tasting them. Silence stretches between them and her stomach does an uneasy dip.
Three words, she thinks. All she’s asking for are three little words. She’d maybe forgive him, then. She’d at least be able to start.
But the three words out of his mouth aren’t the words she’d wanted to hear.
“Come with me.”
She swallows her disappointment. “Where?”
“Away.” He wets his lip, frowning. “Away from this sinking island, away from this broken corner of the map. Just away.”
Emerala considers this, ignoring the dip in her stomach. “A few days ago, you stood before me in a dank cell and told me that all you wanted was to make me a queen. That’s why we came back.”
“I thought I did.” His voice is strange. “But Chancey feels smaller and smaller each day. Coming back here reminded me why I left in the first place. It’s not enough for me. There’s so much more out there, and I’m cunning enough to take all of it.”
“That’s highly arrogant of you,” she observes.
Realization blossoms, unfurling like petals in springtime. Melena’s voice is a ghost in her head, the mocking refrain of her ballad drifting through Emerala’s thoughts. Her next words come out in a stunned whisper. “You still think you can’t be killed.”
His lip quirks into a half smile. “I know I can’t be killed.”
“That’s madness, Evander. Listen to yourself.”
“It’s brilliance,” he disagrees.
“You have a choice, Emerala. You can stay here and be a pawn in the political games of dying men, or you can come with me and conquer the world.”
She studies him, marking the certainty in his smirk. “You’re serious.”
“As the dead Dark Below.”
The ache in her heart is familiar and sharp. She thinks, suddenly and acutely, of a youth spent standing before a rushing tide, watching the ships come in and out of the harbor. All she’d ever wanted was a taste of what the world had to offer. All she’d coveted was the horizon, and the unknown that lay beyond the place where sky met sea.
“My family needs me here.”
“I need you,” he insists.
“No you don’t,” she disagrees. “I don’t think you’ve ever needed anybody.”
She pushes past him but he grabs hold of her forearm, tethering her to him in the dark. They stand shoulder to shoulder, each of them facing the opposite direction.
“Don’t walk away from me.” He’d meant it as an order, but it sounds more like a plea.
She tugs at her arm, but his grip is unrelenting. “I’m not the one leaving,” she bites. “You are. And you don’t have to go. You can stop constantly fighting everyone and everything and fight with us for once. You can stay here and pick a side and help us make a difference. We’re your people, too. You’re Cairan, Evander the Hawk. And this is your war.”
He turns to her, his face cut with disappointment. Overhead, the harvest moon is a pale yellow circle. It looms heavy in the sky, threatening to collapse at any moment. There’s a shout in the main concourse, the sound of hooves beating against stone. A horse looses a whinny, its flailing hooves sending the revelers scattering beneath awnings and racing into doorways.
“Party’s over!” The voice that barks out orders is sharp and authoritative—a soldier’s timbre. “Go home, all of you. Shut and bar your doors.”
The crowd grows restless—frightened. Murmurs ripple through the street like a wave. At the far end of the alley, the colored streamers hang limp against the stale night air.
“Is it the palace?”
“—was it an attack?”
Next to Emerala, Evander is quiet as he stares out into the street and watches the Guardians streak past on horseback. The hooves turn loud against the rising din of the partygoers, sending pebbles skittering across the cobbled stones. Emerala feels Evander before she sees him. His hands encircle her waist and he pushes her into the wall, kissing her hard enough to rob her of her breath.
Surprised, her eyes stay open for the space of two fluttering heartbeats. In the interim, she finds herself staring directly into his piercing golden gaze, his mouth warm against hers and his fingers scoring her skin.
Hooves clatter against the cobbled stone as several Guardians barrel down the alleyway, heading past them in a rush that flutters Emerala’s skirts and sends her curls whipping against her cheeks.
“Ho,” calls a soldier, reining his stallion to a trot. “Clear out of here, both of you. There’s trouble afoot.”
The Guardian doesn’t slow long enough to see his orders obeyed, nudging his horse back into a gallop as he tails after his unit and out of sight. Only once they’re gone does Evander pull away, his mouth wet, the corner smudged with a bit of rouge. He stares into the empty alley, watching the place where the soldiers disappeared.
“What was that?” Emerala demands.
“You know exactly what that was,” he says, not looking at her. “They could have recognized you. Those green eyes are hard to miss.”
“So it was a diversion?”
“It was a kiss, Emerala. You’ve kissed me before.”
“That’s all? Because it felt like a goodbye.”
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