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Chapter Sixteen, Scene One
Neither my stepfather nor the boy he’s with look my way, not once. Not that it would matter—neither would recognize me now. I was twelve when the dragons took me into their flight, just a girl.
I eat in near silence, and Lionel leaves me to my thoughts.
As soon as we’re finished, I throw a few coins on the table and stand. “We’re not staying here tonight.”
I look straight ahead, focusing on the door as I make my way through the room. From the corner of my eye, I see the boy turn.
Unable to stop myself, I turn to meet his bored gaze. But he looks away, having no idea who I am. And why would he? He was an infant when I left.
I step outside and pause on the steps, looking at the village with fresh eyes. Where are we? Memories tug at me, things just out of grasp.
It’s familiar, and yet I have no recollection of this place. Did I grow up here? Are we near my stepfather’s land, or did he simply have business here today?
“Are you all right?” Lionel asks quietly, watching a man light the hanging lanterns outside the tavern.
“I don’t know.”
I feel as if my world has been shaken. My life was carefully divided—my childhood, and my time with the dragons. The two don’t belong together; they shouldn’t overlap.
As I stand here, thinking too hard, a man pulls his dappled gray stallion to a stop in front of the tavern. He appears to be older than I am, but only by a few years.
He, too, looks familiar, but unlike my stepfather, whom I recognized immediately, I have no idea who this man might be. His doublet looks expensive, made of quality cloth and expertly tailored. The sword he wears shines in the dim light. His family must be titled, or they’re very wealthy at the least.
Paying little attention to his surroundings—as if he’s been here a hundred times and there’s nothing new to see—he jogs up the stairs, lost in his own thoughts.
“Pardon me,” he says, looking up when he reaches us, perhaps startled to find us out of place and in his way.
By accident, our eyes meet. Looking daunted, his forehead knits. Like an owl, he tilts his head as he studies me.
“Forgive me,” he says after a moment, shaking his head. “You reminded me of someone.”
“Whom?” I demand, stepping forward.
The man smiles, bowing his head in dismissal. “Just a girl I once knew. Please excuse me.”
But I don’t move away from the door.
Lionel tugs at my arm and quietly murmurs, “Let’s go.”
Naturally, the man’s eyes slide to my companion. His face morphs from mild confusion to sheer horror.
“Lionel,” he breathes, stepping back. “You’re dead.”
“Hello, Aubrey,” Lionel says tightly. “It hasn’t been long enough.”
Aubrey, I think, mulling over the name.
“The dragon took you,” the man says. “I saw it myself.”
“Yes.” Looking like he’d rather punch the man than make idle chitchat, Lionel nods toward the steps, silently telling me to hurry up. “Go ahead, Genevieve.”
I begin to walk, puzzled by the strange turn of events, when the man reaches for my arm. Lionel forgotten, he stares at me, his lips parting with surprise. “What is your name?”
“I’m no one,” I tell him, pulling away from his grasp before Lionel feels he must intervene on my behalf.
“Wait!” the man calls, but neither Lionel nor I look back.
“He recognized you,” I say when we’re a safe distance from the tiny village.
“That’s not as concerning as the fact that he recognized you.” He growls under his breath. “Why would your dragons bring us here?”
“Where is here exactly?” I ask, wishing I’d paid more attention to the surrounding mountains when we were walking in the evening light. Now everything is dark and shadowed, the landscape purple and gray.
“I’m not certain,” Lionel says. “It’s hard to keep one’s bearings when you’re riding atop a dragon.”
I find myself smiling. “It seems different when you’re looking down on it all.”
The prince lets out a mirthless snort. “Until recently, that’s how I lived my life.”
“Who was that man?” I ask abruptly.
Irritation flits across Lionel’s face. “I don’t know his lineage, but Aubrey is often at the Lauramore court. He’s a minor lord—no one of consequence.”
“How do you know him?”
“My father wished to make an alliance with Lauramore, so I visited often.”
I think about that for several moments. “What kind of alliance?”
“A marriage alliance.”
A marriage alliance with the princess.
“If Pippa was intended for you,” I say, “why did she request the tournament?”
“She did it to humiliate me. We don’t get on well,” he adds darkly. Then he shakes his head, his features softening. “I think I always resented the princess—she represented a choice I didn’t get to make, a life I didn’t want. I was in love once. I lost Grace, and I suppose I blamed Pippa for that too.”
“Oh,” I say stiffly.
Lionel turns to look at me, studying me too carefully. “Grace was an orphan. She came into the care of the master scholar in Vernow’s library.”
Did I ask? I did not.
“Is she waiting for you?” My voice is on the edge of tart, and I wrinkle my nose at the tone.
Lionel smiles. It’s a soft and sad sort of look, and it makes my heart pinch in the most uncomfortable way. He says, “She married a duke and sailed to Ptarma.”
My fear subsides, and I press my lips together to fight back a wicked smile.
“You look oddly pleased,” he says wryly. “Do you enjoy my misfortune that much?
Standing a little straighter, I stop walking and turn to him. “The next time you see Princess Pippa, you should thank her.”
His eyebrows shoot up. Eager for an explanation, he faces me, crossing his arms. “Why?”
Lightly, I say, “If you’d married your first love, you wouldn’t be here, and you wouldn’t have met me. And what a tragedy that would have been for you.”
I begin walking again, pretending the words were said in jest, when Lionel catches my arm and tugs me back.
Suddenly, we’re standing close enough I must tilt my head back to look up at him. His hand is still on my arm, and his fingers are warm.
“Genevieve,” he says, his voice slightly gruff.
“What?” I manage, wondering why my heart is racing.
Stop it, heart. You do not have feelings for Lionel.
He gently pulls me closer, stopping just before we touch. “The next time I see Pippa, I will fall on my knees and thank her for demanding the tournament. You are worth all the humiliation, the embarrassment, the hassle, and the punishment. I’d relive it all a hundred times to meet you.”
My knees go weak, but I hold firm, refusing to let Lionel see how his words affect me. “Is that…a confession?”
“No, it’s just a fact.” Amusement lights his eyes in the growing night. “Why? Were you hoping for a confession?”
My heart gallops, and I can barely catch my breath. Somehow, I must diffuse this moment. It’s too much, I can’t handle it.
“No,” I say, rolling my eyes as I try to pull away from him. “Honestly.”
Chuckling under his breath, Lionel lets me go, and we continue on the path that leads back to camp.