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Chapter Sixteen, Scene Two
I yawn, stretching my arms above my head as I step out of my tiny, lopsided tent. There’s a hint of autumn in the breeze, promising cooler days are coming.
As I breathe in the mountain air, I rub a kink in my neck, wishing I’d slept in a real bed last night. A room in the tavern would have been far more comfortable, but after seeing Lord Quinn, it wasn’t an option.
It hits me as I stand here, lost in thought, that our camp is too quiet.
I narrow my eyes as I look around, finding myself completely alone. The dragons are gone, likely off to hunt again. Lionel is missing too.
Frowning to myself, I walk to the fire pit. The ashes are gray and lifeless, untouched since the night before.
When we returned from the village yesterday, Cadalia and Shalay carried most of the conversation, and I was grateful. Neither Lionel nor I mentioned seeing my stepfather. The pair didn’t bring me here on purpose. They were adolescents when I came to live with the dragons, not yet permitted to leave the ridge on their own.
My eyes wander to the rocks I left the message with yesterday. Lionel idly stacked them last night as we sat by the fire. But the small stones aren’t in a pile anymore.
“To village,” I read, smiling to myself. Lionel even added the arrow.
I picture the prince kneeling in front of the tiny rocks, grumbling under his breath as he arranges them. The image makes me smile, but I catch myself and clear my throat.
Lionel must have gone to find work.
Should I follow him and chance running into Lord Quinn again? Or, perhaps worse, the man who recognized me at the tavern?
I’m content. My life is complete, mostly. I don’t need my family. They didn’t want me—why would I want them?
It would be foolish to be curious about them and their lives.
But I can’t help it. I wonder. Are they happy? Did casting me out make their world tidier? Was it easier to pretend my father and I never existed?
I press my hand to my cheek and brush away a rogue tear. It came out of nowhere, taking me by surprise.
“I don’t care about them,” I say aloud, as if I need to remind myself.
Another tear joins the first, and then more stream down my face, hot and confusing. I sink to the ground, crossing my legs and burying my face in my hands. This—whatever it is—will pass.
But it hurts right now.
I don’t hear Lionel until he’s right behind me. When I do, I quickly look up, wiping the tears from my face. I turn to face him, pretending he didn’t catch me sobbing on the ground.
“Don’t ask. I’m fine, and I don’t want to…” My words trail off as I look up at the prince. “You cut your hair.”
Lionel’s long, sun-lightened curls are gone. What’s left is short, completely changing him and drawing attention to his face—a face that I can see now that he’s sheared his beard, leaving not much more than a shadow that suits him. His features are strong, masculine. Even his eyes seem a deeper hazel than before.
And my heart, traitorous thing that it is, squeezes painfully.
It’s almost impossible to believe this is the same battered and bruised, arrogant, crotchety man the red dragon delivered to our meadow.
“Why are you crying?” he asks.
“I’m not crying.” Quickly, I push myself off the ground, dusting the dirt from my long tunic. “You almost look respectable.”
Reluctantly letting me avoid the question, he says, “It’s cooler with it short.”
“I’m sure it is.” I glance at him again, trying to ignore the way my stomach tightens when I meet his eyes. “I see you couldn’t part with your scruff.”
A hesitant smile flutters across his face, and he raises his hand to stroke the short stubble on his chin. “I like it.”
I like it too.
In fact, I like all of it—his hair, his beard, his eyes, his tentative smile, him.
And it worries me.
Turning away from Lionel, I pull on my quiver and bow. “We’re here to hunt. I think it’s time we get on with it.”