Two guards went by as I stood there, breathing hard, soaking wet, completely naked. Their eyes widened. I didn’t recognize either of them. “What are you looking at?”
The one on the left grinned. I pointed my spear at him. “One wrong word, boy, and I’ll see you on latrine duty for the rest of your life.”
His grin faltered. “I was going to tell you where to find clothes.”
“I know where to find the damn clothes,” I snapped and strode away. Other Terralings all but leapt out of my way as I headed toward the kitchen. Not that the kitchen was where the clothes were, but the storehouse off to the side was.
The kitchens were quiet this time of day, and I wasn’t stopped as I headed for the storeroom.
Everyone knew who I was, and my reputation for destruction. For once, it played in my favor to be known as a bad ass.
Clothing was a necessity, but it took all I had not to rush out to the graveyard on the southeast side of the Rim. I hadn’t been there in years, not since my mother and brother were laid to rest.
The storeroom held several sets of Rim Ender uniforms. The leather vest and snug-fitting dark brown pants were tucked away at the bottom of a chest. I pulled them out. The vest I chose had a score mark across the chest. I ran a finger over it. “This was Ash’s.”
“Are you sure?”
“When we were in the Pit the first time, he got this mark from our first fight with the other Enders.” I pulled the vest on, lacing the sides up so it fit me. Pants next and then a leather belt that I hung two smaller bags from. I turned, and Peta sat in the doorway, blocking my way.
“Not until you tell me what the mother goddess asked of you. She gives nothing free, Lark. I know that.” Her green eyes narrowed.
“Not here. I will tell you, but not here.”
“What if she is wrong? What if he is dead? Have you thought that through?” She followed me out of the storeroom and up the stairs.
“Yes. No. I don’t know, Peta. I will not even consider that she is wrong at this point.”
“That is dangerous,” Peta shook her head, “but I understand.”
I dropped a hand and ran it down the length of her back. “Thank you, my friend.”
We hurried and were outside of the Spiral in a matter of minutes. I took a deep breath, drawing in the smells around me. Redwoods, ferns, budding flowers, the smell of someone cooking. This place should have felt like home. Yet I knew it wasn’t, not really. Not anymore.
Home was wherever Ash was.
Someone bumped me from behind and I spun, instantly angry, expecting Cactus. Shazer snorted on me, snot flying from his flaring nostrils. “Lark, I have been looking for you. We must talk. There is something I have to tell you.”
I placed a hand on his neck. “Yes, we will talk. But not right now.”
His dark eyes narrowed and he pawed at the earth. “When?”
“Soon, just not right now.”
Peta shook her head. “She won’t hear you no matter how important you might believe it is. There is a chance Ash is alive.”
His head snapped up. “Truly?”
“Yes.” Just the one word and I was off and running. Through the Rim with Shazer galloping alongside my left, and Peta flanking me on my right. Running with those I trusted, feeling their heartbeats and strength roll through me.
I would need it all if I were wrong, if the mother goddess was wrong, and I had to fully accept that Ash was dead and gone. I slid to a stop at the edge of the Terraling graveyard, my feet suddenly leaden.
The edges were hugged with blackberry vines, thick and tangled, fifteen feet high and curled around the trees. The only opening lay in front of me, an archway of vines. Blackberry blossoms filled the gaps between thorn and vine, a promise of life to come.
I took one step and paused. There was someone already in the yard, someone I did not expect in the least. The man who’d caused me more grief and pain than any other, the man I still wanted to be what I’d imagined as a little girl. My hero, the one who would love me unconditionally, the one who would protect me. Instead he’d become one of my greatest opponents, casting me into the oubliette the second time as though I were trash to be buried and forgotten.
My heart beat harder, thumping and fighting as if it would leap out of my chest. I loved him as much as I hated him, and I did not know if I could reconcile the two emotions. Not now certainly, and maybe not ever.
“Isn’t that . . .” Peta whispered.
“Yes,” I nodded. “That’s my father.”
he former king of the Rim sat on a stone bench next to a grave I knew all too well, a red hawk on his shoulder I also knew rather well.
My mother had been buried in the center of the graveyard, as a place of honor. To her left rested Bramley, a sleeping baby forever. For just a moment, I saw his smiling, laughing face and chubby cheeks, his bright eyes. The way he’d clung to me in his last moments.
Old grief, pain I thought I’d left behind curled up and cut through the hope that had buoyed me. I put a fist to my belly, doing what I could to quell the roll of emotions.
“Shazer,” I put a hand on his neck, “stay at the gate, keep watch.”
He snorted and bobbed his head as I stepped through the archway. Peta kept tightly to my side, her unwavering support about all that kept me moving through the memories that surrounded me, filling my mind and making my steps slow.