Six-hundred hot-off-the-keyboard words, beneath the jump.
Ayden stood in the broad marble hallway and watched everyone walk away. It did not escape his notice that no one was guarding him now, or telling him where to go. They’d made their decision about him, then.
Yet forgotten to tell him.
That irked him until he remembered they weren’t used to needing to say things like that. Any other elf would simply have heard their trust, fallen gods crack the cracking starfall. And crack the humans who’d put it there, too. Even gone from their grasps, they hurt him still, and oh, but how hard it was not to hate them for it, hate them all—
“Bitterness does not become you, brother.”
Ayden whirled round at the sound of a much-missed voice, just in time to catch Ella mid-tackle as she threw her arms round him. He hugged her back just as fiercely, all the strain of the day washing clean in the joy of surprise. And a second surprise, as well, for standing there behind Ella, patient and smiling, eyes bright with tears, was his mother.
He opened his arms and brought her into the hug, asked on a laugh, “What are you two doing here?”
Ella pulled away, that old familiar mischief sparkling in her eyes. “I came to see Freyrík, of course.”
Their mother swatted her good-naturedly and said, “We came as soon as we heard you’d returned. We did not know . . .”
Even deaf, he could tell from the way her gaze flicked to the floor, from the way her mouth pinched, how that sentence was to end: if you’d be whole. If you’d need us.
He slung an arm round her shoulder and pulled her in close, kissed the top of her head. She’d cut her hair short in mourning. For him? “I’m fine, mom.”
Ella looked him up and down and said, “Better than fine. You’re in love.”
“You’re so thin,” his mother said, as if Ella hadn’t just made such a grand declaration.
“We traveled hard. It’s nothing a month of home cooking won’t fix.”
Ella took his hand, pulled him down the hallway in the direction the others had gone. To the mess, he assumed. “I told them all I knew,” she said. “When I came home. They sent Afi Kengr to see if he could retrieve you, but you’d already gone. He brought back . . .” A pause, long and miserable. “Stories.” She stopped walking, spun him to face her and grabbed his other hand. “Tell me Freyrík didn’t—”
“He didn’t. ‘Twas my choice. And as for High Court . . . well, that was nobody’s choice. At least not his or mine.”
It seemed good enough for her. She started walking again. His mother grasped the hand Ella had let go. He squeezed her fingers, praying she didn’t know what Ella was talking about.
But of course she did. How could she not?
He looked to her and tried to smile. “Promise me you’ll think no more of it.”
She made no attempt to smile in return. He didn’t think she was angry—at least not at him—but ‘twas clear her upset had overtaken the joy of reunion. “You have said that to me too many times since you joined the army.”
“I know, you do not wish to argue.” She pulled her hand from his, swiped at her eyes, took his hand again. Squeezing hard. “Nor do I. Come, let’s eat. Gods know you could use a good meal.”