Bella’s mouth dropped open. “You wouldn’t have.”
“Yes,” I said. “I would have. I know you, Bella. But I do not think you know me any longer.”
I hadn’t meant to say that, but the words slipped out. Peta sat quietly beside me. “It is the age-old mistake people make,” she said, “believing those we love aren’t capable of harming us, and so we trust them.”
I grimaced, Peta’s words not really helping smooth things over.
Bella called for the guards who slipped in, their heads down. Her eyes on them said it all. Where were they when the fight was going on? Where were they when they should have been protecting their queen? Even though she was in the wrong, they still should have come running to defend her.
“We didn’t know you were fighting,” young Arb said.
She nodded, her eyes and face softening. “I know. That is no fault of your own. More training I think is needed. We have not had a true Ender for years.” Her eyes climbed to mine, shame filling them. “Lark, what happened to me?” The unspoken question with it, what had happened to me as well? Why wasn’t I the Lark she remembered? The little sister she remembered.
“I do not think this is a good place to discuss what is going on.”
River continued to glare at me through all this. “Mother, you obviously can’t trust her, she’s dangerous.”
With her hand clinging to her daughter’s, Bella shook her head. “River, I do not expect you to understand. Despite what your aunt says, I don’t believe she would have hurt you.”
Wisely, I kept my mouth shut. Because Bella was the one who was wrong. I knew it in my gut: the oubliette had changed me, and I wasn’t sure it was for the better.
I motioned for her to follow me. She bent and kissed River on the head. “I will see you at the healers.”
“Mother, don’t do this, do not trust her. They call her the Destroyer for a reason.” River clung to Bella.
Bella took River’s hand from hers and smiled. “It will be all right. Trust me, even if you do not trust Lark.”
Several tears slid down River’s face. “I do not know if I can even do that.” She was picked up and carried away to the healers.
If I had stabbed Bella myself, the pain in her face would not have been greater than it was with River’s words. She watched her daughter go, tiny shudders crossing her shoulders.
I turned my back. “We need to speak. Come with me.”
We left the dining hall, Bella a few steps behind me. Through the Spiral I led her, down the wide halls and stairs until we were once more deep below, on the sand leading into the hot spring.
Bella put her hands on her hips. “Why here?”
I looked around. “Because everyone would expect you to speak with me in your quarters, or the throne room. If anyone is looking to listen in they will need to come through there.” I pointed at the single entrance. “And Peta’s going to guard it for us.”
Peta grinned up at me, then trotted up the stairs, and plunked herself down in the middle of the doorway.
“Because I am not the only one who is gathering the five stones.” I drew a breath. “Raven is hunting them too. I need surprise on my side to get to them faster than him.”
I crouched and Bella did the same, her skirt billowing out around her. “Talk to me, Lark. Tell me everything you can.”
That much at least she understood. That perhaps there were things I might not be able to share.
“The stones were created by an elemental who could control the wearer.” I looked straight at her. “I believe your actions to be at the wishes of this elemental. To fight me, to make it difficult to take the ring.” I brushed a hand through the sand.
Bella swallowed hard and slid all the way down to the sand. “That . . . makes a wicked sort of sense. There were things I did that I didn’t want to, but when I attacked you . . . I just didn’t want you to have the ring. Even though a voice told me to give it up.”
My ears all but perked up. “A voice told you to give the ring up?” Perhaps the mother goddess was helping after all.
“Yes, it was faint, but there. Of course, you see how well I listened.” She snorted softly.
From the doorway, Peta spoke. “Does this really matter right now?”
She had a point. “Bella, I have to remove the stones from the other three rulers. They have had the stones, and worn them, far longer than you have. The madness that was creeping over you will be even worse with them. And I have to do it before Raven does.”
She frowned. “And if you don’t?”
“The world will be destroyed. With the five stones, Raven would be strong enough to break our world.” Not that I was going to tell them I had the fifth ring safely tucked away. No need to let that particular cat out of the bag.
Her hand went to her throat. “Are you sure?”
“That is what the mother goddess told me,” I paused, “but even that is not the whole reason. Ash is not dead, Bella. I went to his grave. He wasn’t in it. The mother goddess will tell me where to find him.”
“So you are doing this . . . for yourself? Not to save the world.” Her eyes widened, surprise flitting through them.
“I’m doing this for Ash. And it’s saving the other families in the process.” I bit the words out, fighting the chagrin her implication sparked in me.
“Lark, that isn’t like you—”