Wind tore at the seams of the world. One cold hand dangling at her side, Cleandra thought that even a skilled seamstress couldn’t mend this mess. The sky itself grew into a gaping hole, punctuated by the red, angry zigzag of fraying sutures.
None of this was what she saw, but rather what she felt.
On some level, she knew her eyes were closed, her head pressed against Amnar’s heaving chest. His breath was the wind in a graveyard, somehow full of life despite the death around them. No warmth came from him, but then again, she’d ceased feeling much of anything.
She should call out, clutch his arm, something to stop the grief emanating from him, but she couldn’t pull her mind away from the rupture in the sky, the fissure that bled Aythinia’s black magic onto the forest of Elodria.
Thunder sounded in her mind and an earthquake grew in her heart.
This isn’t over.
Every trace of energy was gone from her limbs, and she was certain that any remaining life force inside her was spent keeping her heart beating. But who needed a heartbeat when the world was falling apart?
Ever more strongly, her mind gravitated toward the growing darkness on the horizon. I wonder if I can go there?
After all, it was where she’d find Nymuë—or better yet, Aythinia herself.
His heart was blooming amaryllis, or a shy vine flower: soft-petaled, afraid of the sun. Early in life, it was perhaps not yet in the full glory of love, but was tenderly beautiful, aching. He stared down at his lover’s honey skin; aurous, the color of summer wheat. Her hair was long, dark, glossy as a bay coat; she was small and so, so soft. He ran his pale, thin fingers over her bare shoulder. She sighed in the comfort of sleep.
“Oh, Saya. How did I become so lucky?”
He stared at his hand on her shoulder, and the contrast was moonlight on the midnight sea. He breathed deep, memorizing her smell, mahogany and ocean wind, a hint of lily, cinnamon bite.
Her eyelashes feathered his skin as she stirred awake. Saya’s dark eyes were lagoons, speaking fathoms. Staring into them, Amnar felt he was dreaming, that he could dream forever.
The ocean breeze sifted over their naked bodies, lisping through sheer sunrise curtains and tossing the satin sheet tangled around their legs. Saya huddled into the hollow of his shoulder, shielding herself from the draft. Her breath fogged his skin, lips just brushing him. Again, Amnar felt the ache in his chest; this moment was too sweet to bear, for surely it must end.
His fingers found her hair, and they coaxed out the laziest of smiles on her lips.
“Mmm.” Her rich voice thrummed in his ribcage, reverberating between his breath and heartbeat. “I’ve wondered how this would be since I first laid eyes on you,” she said. Saya’s lithe fingers trailed along his arm.
“And?” He let out a hot breath. “How was it?”
She rose from the bed shoulder-first, in a black waterfall of hair. Admiring, he pressed his fingers to her spine, feeling slanted shoulder blades rise away from her back like wings.
It was rumored that the people of Nydirn had been a winged race once, that their descendants had flown to this isle from the mainland; then, absorbed by dreams and magic, they’d lost the need or the desire to fly. He imagined Saya with big blackbird’s wings, shimmering purple and blue in the ocean glare as she soared high on the breeze.
Bemusement twisted her lips, as if in response to his thoughts. She leaned closer, eyes turning to smooth ink as she replied, “Your skin…the way you move…You say you’ve never been with a woman before, but you touch me as though you know exactly what I’m feeling.”
Amnar hid a smile. She should know better. Was she naive, or teasing, to imply that he didn’t know her every emotion? While he may not be as skilled as a native Brysian, he wasn’t immune to her thoughts and feelings.
“And these eyes!” she exclaimed, brushing her knuckles along his cheekbone.
He winced, turning his gaze away. He knew his eyes frightened people, their deep crimson branding him, as if his snow-pale skin wasn’t enough. Everyone’s reaction was the same: fascination with his complexion, but a fear-driven inability to meet his gaze. And yet, it wasn’t because he was a formidable man; it was because his eyes reminded them of the Brysians, and the blood of their kin that his race had so extravagantly slaughtered. Yet, here was this woman, touching his face, letting him pay her his love. That she’d allowed him to go this far was astounding.
But here, his lack of experience with reading minds showed through, because she didn’t say what he thought she would. “I’ve always wondered if your eyes were red because you have such passion in you. People say Brysian Red is the color of evil, but I think not. It’s the color of dragon scales, of hunger, of life itself! And I knew, simply by looking at you, that you’d be so… very… hungry.”
Her kisses fell on his lips between each word. She climbed on top of him, the tangle of sheets slipping on their skin. Her lips and breasts pressed full against him; wrapped in the cascade of her hair, they plunged into an affection of kisses. Saya’s breath caught and her fervor rose; body and mind, he sensed it as she pressed into him.
In a flood, the passion was upon him, too. Perhaps she’s right. But no one had ever evoked such a feeling in him, such a desperation to act, love, cry out. The rushing tide swept them away into new, unbelievable heights.
Their hair mingled in washes of black and white, and they swayed with the rhythm of the beach. It was impossible to feel like this, he thought, when all his life he’d been bombarded by the public’s fear and scorn, not just in their eyes, but in their thoughts, that quick, biting hatred burning within them. Yet now, he burned with something new and he let Saya’s love overtake him. He drowned in it, losing himself within her.
They rose in unison, shuddering, gasping; now, there was no doubt in his mind as to what she saw in his brooding eyes. Everything she was resided in him. It was far too intoxicating, this sensation of loving and being loved. Such perfection and absolution; her every breath and movement affirmed who he was, without care for his past or fear of his gaze…
When they reached a crest together, they paused, clutching at skin and sheets, trying to stretch the moment into eternity; then, they sank down in wafts of pleasure, bodies fitted together exactly.
“You are too much,” he whispered when he could speak again. “I’ll die of ecstasy if we continue this.”
“Then you’ll die happy.” She laughed, cradling his head against her breast. Their hearts were full; love burst from them in tumbling bed-play and laughter. Amnar knew it’d end soon, but he pushed the thought out of mind, reveling in the softness surrounding him: bed, woman, heart, breeze…
“I could hold you forever,” he murmured against her hair—lilies again, ocean skin.
She kissed his hair. “Never let go.”
~ ~ ~
Amnar stared at the still form before him, his mouth set in a hard line. He existed in a world without sound or breath; everything was as motionless as the woman on the flower-filled pyre. It seemed cruel to place such fresh things near her, these blossoms at the peak of their life; or perhaps it was fitting to see them frozen together on the cusp of their zenith, only just beginning the descent to decay.
His stomach turned. The thought of it, of the face that had smiled at him when no one else could, of those hands that had comforted him when no one’s would; of how later, when the pyre floated out to sea, she’d burn to ash, disperse on the wind, her existence erased.
He thought to touch her, kiss her hand; but no. He couldn’t bring himself to feel how cold she was, how lost to him. He couldn’t move past the lump in his throat to say a single word of goodbye; but it was just as well. No one offered him consolation but Saya, who squeezed his hand once and then left him to his grief.
It was right, her leaving him alone. There was no need to drag her into the shock of this. His innards were beach sand, washing back and forth, littered with sharp shells and shards of rock. He was on the edge of grief, not quite certain what he felt.
Dead, he thought. I might as well be dead.
His mother’s husband kneeled by her side, his quaking shoulders littered with consoling hands.
On the other side of the pyre, he glimpsed flashes of red, the crimson cloaks of the Priory of Sorcerers a precursor to the fire that would see her to the afterlife. He felt a sorcerer’s mind brush against his but withdrew; despite only being half-Brysian, he had no desire to associate himself with people who mistreated his kind.
A scornful voice whispered, “The Emperor should be glad to be rid of her—the woman couldn’t even bear him a decent heir!”
“Sssh!” scolded a second voice. “He’s standing right there!”
“It’s not as though it’s a secret,” the first one scoffed.
Amnar tried not to think about who the gossipers were, but it was no use. Their minds brushed against his before he could stop it, and he recognized them immediately: Thúr, the commander of the guard, and his brother Bohrin.
His neck burned.
Everyone knew the story: how, during the last war, the empress, Yselde, had been raped and impregnated by Cahal the Vast, chief warlord of Brys. The emperor had encouraged his wife to abort the pregnancy, had even demanded it. At the risk of facing exile, Yselde had insisted on bearing the child, but the difficulty of bearing a Brysian babe had nearly taken her life and left her barren.
Amnar’s heart burned for her, the most beautiful and gracious woman he’d ever known, that people would speak this way at her funeral. No one should remember her as the mother of a bastard, and an enemy’s bastard at that.
“Perhaps the emperor will find a new wife?” Bohrin mused, not bothering to whisper.
Amnar thought his bitterness must be pervading the room. He tasted copper and realized he’d nicked his tongue against a fang. His hands shook in their pockets.
Determined not to let the crowd see him react, he turned on one heel and stalked away, one forced step at a time. Eyes and eyes turned accusations at his back.
They must wonder what kind of prince he was. He couldn’t sit through his own mother’s funeral. He hadn’t even bid her goodbye. These were likely the thoughts that fueled the scorn that stung his back. The light seemed to darken and his mind recoiled from their disgust, resisting the urge to speed up.
How could they know? The only way to say goodbye now was to rid himself of their disrespect. He cared little for the emperor, but at least the man knew how to honor his wife’s memory.
When he glimpsed the open sky, Amnar bolted. He didn’t care who saw him then, as he sped through the streets, outrunning his grief. He ran, sight pitching, eardrums pounding. There was no direction in his mind until he saw the stables—then, determination set his brow.
He freed a horse and leaped upon it, bareback, speeding out of the city and onto the open plain. The creature felt his urgency and ran break-necked toward the beach, straining its black nose into the wind, snorting.
When the horse finally stopped at the edge of the tide, Amnar dismounted and stood still, seawater soaking his legs.
He stared at the darkening horizon.
Go back to Brys, where you belong, people had told him, over and over, for as long as he could remember. His mother used to kiss his forehead and tell him not to listen. He knew he didn’t belong—not here, not in Brys—but for the first time in his life, he considered whether it’d be better to listen, after all.
Even if he didn’t return to Brys, he could take a sailboat and strike out across the sea. There were other places in the world, places where his looks would still mark him as strange, but might be less frowned upon. He could make a living as a fisherman or ship’s hand—eventually, perhaps even a merchant sailor. Anything would be better than staying here.
He thought of Saya and his heart sank. If he could muster the strength to leave her, she’d probably be better off without him.
He had nothing but a horse and sea-soaked clothing. But as the sun disappeared into the ocean bed, he mounted his horse and turned away from home. He couldn’t go back there now… perhaps not ever.
~ ~ ~
On the cliffside was a small cave he visited often. He decided to spend the night while his clothes dried. Letting his horse roam the grassy plain atop the plateau, Amnar descended into the cave’s cool awning and sat inside its mouth, where he could watch the tide. The night’s solemn orb was usually his only confidant, but even its bright face was absent from the sky tonight.
He had a small sailboat at the docks not far from here, and no one would question it if he set sail first thing in the morning. He sailed often, and this time, it would be a permanent escape instead of a temporary one.
Eyes closed, he thought through his plans. Before departing, he’d need to trade for supplies, but even his shirt was worth more than most people made in a year. I’ll need to gather herbs, too. Certain plants could boost his magic—hicurra, for strength, mór root, for healing—and some of them were native only to the islands.
A shiver passed through Amnar, but he welcomed the cold. The cave and the waves kept him centered, a world apart from the streets of Nydirn.
After a moment, his eyes sprang open.
The cold, the sound of the ocean, the shivering that kept returning to his spine… these things were real. And if they were real, then so was this day. So was his grief.
His mother was dead.
His thoughts stalled and his throat tightened. Until now, he’d been avoiding the grief that’d threatened to overwhelm him at the funeral. But now, a cold gauntlet closed around his heart. It squeezed, leaving him gasping.
The air grew colder on his face, and Amnar realized he was crying, the tears streaming down his cheeks, unrelenting. Eyes squeezed shut, he tried to quell the pain that razed through his chest, his lungs burning in supplication for air, his sternum on fire with the force of his realization.
Grief hurt, but it was nothing he wasn’t accustomed to. His entire life had been full of sadness so deep, he’d never bothered to cry over it, because no amount of crying could subdue what he was, what his existence meant. The grief, he could’ve dealt with.
But the guilt was killing him.
Yselde had been a beautiful woman, strong and unique, perhaps the only woman who could stand up to the Emperor Anfor. But because of him, she’d been ridiculed for twenty awful years. She’d been plagued by the dishonor —no, the horror—of birthing a child of Brys. Knowing that his conception had been against her will was enough to drive a dagger through his heart. It’d always hurt him, but now that she was gone, it was far beyond wounding.
I should’ve left years ago, he thought bitterly. I could’ve saved her the memory of that night. I could’ve spared her the scorn of her people, and if I had, maybe people wouldn’t be dishonoring her at her funeral.
Another thought interrupted his tirade, leaving him breathless again. How did she die? She hadn’t been ill, at least not that he’d known. Earlier, he’d been too shocked to find out the reason. All he could think of at the time had been his stifling loneliness, and his need for something unspoken that his mother had never quite been able to provide. It was a chasm so deep, he didn’t dare name it. It was a need at the core of his soul, something Saya had come close to touching, but he was sure could never be filled.
Maybe Anfor finally had enough and killed her. But as soon as he thought it, Amnar knew it didn’t make sense. Anfor was grieving, too, and he knew that despite the emperor’s many faults, he’d truly loved the empress.
Then, another idea presented himself, one that stilled his grief and numbed his limbs. Maybe she killed herself. Amnar held his breath, waiting for his mind to tell him it couldn’t be true… but this rang truer than any other idea.
No. No, no, no.
His heart clenched around the word, clutching it tight, as if holding onto denial could erase the truth.
He’d seen Yselde’s sadness. Everyone had. But he’d never imagined that, after mustering the strength to give birth to him and raise him, his mother would suddenly cave and take her own life.
She was too strong for that. He stared, unseeing, at the restless waves, tears drying on his cold face.
His cynical subconscious piped up, unwanted. She was strong. Until she realized who you’d grown up to be.
A frown tightened his brow. Amnar drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around his legs, tight.
Because it was clear he was about to fall to pieces.
He knew he wasn’t a man to be proud of. He was quiet and bookish, ambitionless, a fright to behold. And what if he resembled that bastard who’d impregnated his mother?
It’d be enough to drive anyone to their death, even Yselde.
He clenched his eyes shut. His fingernails dug into his thighs, and he gripped harder, welcoming the pain. Anything that took his mind away from these thoughts was welcome.
Because surely, her death was his fault.
A dry sob echoed in the cave around him, but he had no more tears. His mind grappled with itself, sliding down a deep, dark hole. The fingers of his consciousness searched for something, anything, to hold onto. It was a losing battle, since he didn’t have the will to search for something happier to dwell on.
For a moment, he thought he heard Saya’s voice calling him, and his mouth twitched in a bitter smirk. She can’t save you, either. The same thing will happen to her, too. She just doesn’t see it yet.
His eyes sprang open. He wasn’t hearing things—there was her voice again, carried on the wind. Amnar scurried to the opening of the cave and peered down to the beach.
There she was, following hoof prints in the sand, calling his name into the dark night. Her voice was tinged with worry.
His heart gave a hopeful lurch that only deepened his sadness. You can’t go to her, he reminded himself.
She clutched her elbows, and he saw that she was wearing the same satin dress she’d worn to the funeral, the one that left her shoulders exposed. His keen eyes noticed that she was barefoot, too. Amnar’s breath hitched. Surely she was freezing.
Foolish girl. He stood and took a step closer to the cave’s awning, heart aching in debate.
“Amnar!” she called, an edge in her voice. Even from here, he could taste her worry, salty as the breathless sob he’d given only a moment ago. There was something else, too—desperation—and it tipped him beyond self-control.
He called down to her, “Saya! Wait there!” before climbing down the slick rock face. When he reached the bottom, he leaped down, his boots making a dull thud on the dry sand.
There she was, standing before him with a frozen expression—eyes wide, lips parted. Her eyes sparkled even in the pre-moonrise dark. In her heaving breath was some unspoken need, and for the first time, Amnar wondered if she needed him as much as he needed her.
Why would she?
Before he could speak, she launched herself into his arms and with ginger hands, he held her quaking shoulders.
Is she crying?
But as she gazed up at him, he saw her eyes were dry. The air vibrated between them, and echo of a chord plucked on their heartstrings. They both gasped, and now his breath matched hers, quick and heavy.
Amnar let himself succumb to Saya’s sudden barrage of kisses, taking in her soft lips, then layering her neck in his own desire.
She moaned softly, and the sound ignited a flame inside him, and ache that went deeper than just lust.
He echoed her groan, whispering into her neck, “I’ve never needed anyone the way I need you, right now.”
She froze, and he pulled back to take in her startled stare.
“Truly, Saya.” His voice was low and hoarse. “You have me spellbound.”
It was true. He was like a man enchanted, drawn to her against his better instincts. He knew if it came down to it, he’d drag her spiraling into his own downfall, and never let go.
Saya let out a hitched breath, and the sound made him want to take her right there on the sand. “I feel the same,” she murmured, tracing his face with wondering eyes. “Sometimes I feel helpless to this feeling, this force between us.”
He couldn’t stand it anymore. His gaze was fixed on her heaving chest, and he seemed possessed by the desire radiating from her, like the scent of a noxious flower, heady and over-sweet.
Scooping her up in his arms, he lost himself in her kisses, swept up by the tide that was pulled them both too far from the shore.
Eventually, he found his way to the shelter of the cliff and sat her down on the sand.
“Are we going up?” she asked, pulling away from his kiss as though it wounded her to stop.
“No.” He caught her lips again, and though it occurred to him to say that he wanted her too much to wait, he couldn’t seem to stop long enough to speak.
They sank to the sand, in a world all their own. Her breasts pressed against him, so soft he thought they could melt at his touch. When he pulled back the fabric of her dress and brushed her skin with his fingertips, she gasped and writhed beneath him.
Saya pulled him closer, whispering, “You belong here. You belong with me.”
A dam broke inside him and all his pent-up need came pouring out. Need for this, yes, but also for something more. As he touched the soft skin of her thigh, he felt how ready she was for him.
That was what he’d always needed, he realized with a jolt. That was the reason he couldn’t slow down. Here was this woman who’d sought him out, who was eager for his touch. Him, monster-spawn, who deserved to be shunned.
A sudden doubt rose in his mind. Is she mad? Why would she want me? He paused, chest heaving, to stare into her eyes. It was agony to stop, but he needed to know.
“Please, Amnar,” she beseeched, gripping his arms in desperation. “Don’t make me wait.”
The hunger was evident in her eyes, and suddenly it was enough. He didn’t care if she was deranged or just living an illusion. All that mattered was that she was here and, by some miracle, she was his.
She wanted to be his.
He thrust inside her suddenly, and they both cried out, the sound echoing against the cliff before it was swallowed up by the rush of waves.
~ ~ ~
Amnar let out an unwitting groan and raised his face from the sand. His blood quickened with the tide; he knew before opening his eyes that the full moon had risen.
Saya lay cusped against him, her head on his arm. She stirred with him. A shiver rippled over her skin, and he realized her dress was still damp.
Foolish girl. He brushed her black hair back from her face. Why’d you stand in the water? She must’ve thought they’d go straight home. Instead, she’d been intercepted by his wolfish lust.
Amnar took a deep breath and closed his eyes. His skin was hot, his blood running with a different kind of need, one that bade him to run wild across the shore.
Suddenly, it seemed impossible to suppress the wolf inside. It was time to change, and the call had never been as strong as it was now.
It’s because of all that’s happened, he reasoned, but he wasn’t so certain.
Only hours before, he’d wanted to let go of this life completely, but now that Saya had found him, his heart yearned for another outcome.
He sat up, stretching his stiff back, then glanced down. Saya had sand on her nose, but her face was relaxed and peaceful.
Blood pounded in his ears and his breath quickened. There was a pull within him, a feral desire, almost dangerous, rooted in some predatory need.
He almost leaned down to kiss her, but instead, he turned abruptly on the sand and stood, stalking down the beach.
Something stirred within him again, and Amnar realized he was panting and sweating. He blinked, spots appearing on his vision as his muscles flexed with the strain of stifling the transformation.
It’d never been this difficult to control the change. Some nights, he’d been forced to suppress his wolf form through the entire week of the full moon, when the risk of being seen was too high. He didn’t understand why he was losing control now.
I can’t turn while Saya’s here. The idea of her seeing him change was beyond intolerable. She’d leave for certain.
Amnar hunched over in sudden pain, hands digging into the sand, head bowed as he let go, knowing the change would overtake him this time, whether he fought or not.
He let out a strangled cry, a sound that forced itself through the pain. The transformation didn’t usually hurt; the pain came from fighting his instincts.
When he finally let go, the familiar sensation of his skin rippling was almost comforting. When his bones expanded, he knew this was the real release he’d needed when he’d so hungrily taken Saya on the sand.
The change only took a moment. Amnar whirled around to glance at Saya, but she was still asleep at the base of the cliff. He let out a huff of relief, but his heart continued racing.
It was the first time in his life he’d lost the fight with the wolf.
He wanted to run.
Amnar took off across the beach, cool wind rustling through his fur, the salt air filling his nostrils. Water splashed around his paws as he dashed over the lapping waves, pressing headlong into the moonlight.
~ ~ ~
An hour later, a white wolf stood panting on the seashore, staring at the moon, silent.
It’s time to return… What if Saya’s woken up?
With a huff, he willed himself into the change. An hour had hardly been enough to curb the wild instinct within him, but Amnar didn’t have any more time. He felt his bones shrink and his muscles flex through the change, then the familiar ripple as his skin returned to its human shape. The spell that clothed him was barely a thought, just part of the process after all these years.
When he’d finished, Amnar turned back toward the cliff. He’d have to walk all the way around to get back to Saya, but it was better than risking her catching sight of his transformation.
He took two steps and then paused. He wasn’t alone.
Standing down the beach before him, with the wild-eyed look of a startled doe, was a strange woman, a small figure with a grand presence. Her hair was un-brushed and her dress was far too heavy for island folk—the ocean air was cool, but it was also humid, and her dress must feel stifling.
She hadn’t been there a moment ago—he’d checked to make sure he was alone before changing shape.
Her gaze felt primal and it called to something deep inside him. A shudder passed through him as he watched her luminous skin shift with a strange light.
“Incredible.” Her voice held all the secret noise of a meadow, whispering and full of life. She seemed to examine him, and her scent hit him, mingling with the ocean air: deep, cool earth and the musk of crushed leaves underfoot; hint of clove, an animal musk he couldn’t place; undertone of pine smoke.
“Who are you?” He knew before she answered that she was a goddess, that an old-world power lived within her.
Her simple answer was startling, and for a moment, he stood frozen in place, staring without registering what she’d said.
“What do you want?” he asked finally.
She moved closer, gliding across the beach with the grace of a seabird riding the breeze.
Their eyes locked and his breath caught.
Within Marian’s eyes were a million tiny flecks—stars, luminous in their own right. Her wild mane was laced with leaves and moss, as though foliage sprang from her head the same as hair. And beneath the surface of her skin, thin veins shone green and gold, pulsing with the outline of leaves and vines, appearing and disappearing with each beat of her heart.
Amnar was struck by the earthen beauty of this woman, and it hit him suddenly that Marian was the name of a star, renowned for its alchemical power. Coincidence?
She smirked, a surprising mischief nick appearing at the corner of her mouth. “Hardly.”
He pulled back a fraction. “You heard that?”
“Yes, you’re quite the loud thinker.” Her voice carried the rustle of leaves. She peered at him, her eyes cutting straight to his soul.
He held his breath. Who is she? Is she human?
No, I’m not human. Her words were ringing crystal in his mind. And neither are you.