unedited manuscript not intended for distribution.
“Your people and your ways sound fascinating.” The words slip unguarded from my lips. “I wish I could see it. Mythanar, I mean.”
I look up, meet his gaze.
“If all goes well with the negotiations tomorrow,” he persists. “Would you come?”
Is he saying what I think he’s saying? Surely not. Surely I’m imagining that earnestness underscoring his voice. But oh! I long to respond to it! How can it be that a mere two days have wrought such an unexpected change in my heart? Filling me with hopes and dreams I have no business indulging.
But he’s here. Beside me. I feel the warmth of his soul radiating out from him, clearer to my gods-gifted senses even than the beauty of his face or the timbre of his voice. I know exactly what he’s asking. My mouth opens, my lips move. My answer rests on the very tip of my tongue.
Instead, I find myself saying: “What do you hope to gain in coming here, Vor?”
He blinks, surprised at my tone perhaps. He’d leaned in toward me but now draws back a fraction. “I should think that was obvious. I hope to gain a wife.”
“Yes, but why? Why have you come seeking here, in this world? No doubt any number of trolde women would gladly become your queen. You have another purpose in knocking at my father’s door.”
He turns from me, leans his elbows on his knees, and gazes across the winter-wrapped garden. His chest expands in a sigh. “It’s the Miphates,” he says at last. “I have a . . . a need back home. A difficulty that requires a magical solution. Fae magic won’t do, nor trolde. This requires something different—human magic, but on a scale as yet unseen in this world or any other.”
There’s something in his voice, in his soul. A darkness which I now realize has been there all along, but which I had not recognized until this moment. It’s like a great, clawed creature, clinging to his shoulders, weighing him down. Crushing him beneath its weight.
I nod slowly. Now I understand. Not everything, perhaps. But enough.
Enough to know what answer I must give.
“If you take my sister as your bride, my father will honor his agreement.”
Vor looks up sharply. His eyes flash bright, seeking mine. I duck my head, focus on my hands, folded in my lap. Am I betraying Ilsevel by telling Vor this? Am I securing a fate she would not choose for herself? Perhaps.
I continue, nonetheless. “My father does not love easily. But he loves Ilsevel.”
Vor is silent for some time. At long last, he lets out a breath. “I understand.”
I feel the abrupt shift in his spirit, feel how he pulls back from me. Only as he retreats do I recognize just how close he’d drawn. So, I wasn’t mistaken. He was offering me something . . . something I very much wanted to accept. Something I must refuse. For his sake.
We are silent for a little while. Then Vor rises. I close my eyes a moment before tilting my head to look up at him. “I will leave you now, Princess,” he says, offering a short bow. “I trust I will see you again before my visit here is done?”
“Yes, thank you.” I tip my head politely. “I’m sure we shall meet.”
Without another word, he turns and starts back across the garden, following the path. I watch him go. I tell myself not to let my gaze linger. But somehow, I cannot resist what feels like my final glimpse of this stranger who has, in such a short space of time, worked such a change in my heart.
He reaches the door in the wall. Shadows close around him, obscuring him from my view. The next moment, he’s gone.
When we see one another again, he will be a different man entirely. A man who belongs to my sister.