I snorted as Peta and I leapt up behind her, Peta once more worming her way between us. “I’m glad you don’t try that when you are in your leopard form.”
“Me too. You’re not all fluff, you know,” Shazer bit out as he galloped across the field.
Bella crunched forward and slapped his neck. “It’s not polite to talk about a lady’s weight.”
He grunted as he leapt into the air. “When you start being a beast of burden, you get to say whatever you like about the size of people’s asses.”
She gasped, Peta let out a growl, and I rolled my eyes. “No comment about my weight?”
“Goddess, no, you’d probably cut my wings off.”
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence and then I laughed softly. “True enough, I might.”
“You wouldn’t.” Bella twisted to look at me, her hair swirling out around her. I shrugged.
“Well, not on your behalf, I wouldn’t. I saw you naked earlier, remember? No hiding your ass from me.”
Her jaw dropped and horror flickered through her eyes. “Am I that fat?”
“Goddess, no, I was teasing!” I leaned forward and patted her on the head as though she were the younger sibling and not me. “You don’t look any different to me than you did when I was a child, Bella. Still the big sister I want to be when I grow up.”
Tears filled her eyes and she blinked them away. “That’s the nicest thing you could have said.”
“Well, I’m nothing if not full of sugar and spice.”
Peta snorted. “Heavy on the spice, I think.”
Shazer snorted. “Are you three going to have this hen party the entire time? My ears are on the verge of bleeding.”
“Yes,” the three of us answered in unison. Peta purred softly between us.
“This is how it is meant to be.”
I knew what she meant, but it scared me. I wrapped my arms around Bella again and we clung to each other like children fending off the night together. I only hoped that was not what reality turned out to be.
We flew through the night, and early the next morning we were over the southeastern seaboard. The Deep lay in the section of the ocean the humans nicknamed the Bermuda Triangle.
The water was brilliantly blue below us, and I could see a good distance into it. Triangular fins popped up here and there. Bella shuddered. I held tighter to her. Neither of us had the greatest memories from our time in the Deep.
“You were there, after River was born?” I asked.
“Yes.” Just one word, but that was all that was needed. She’d done it to keep her daughter safe from her psychotic mother, Cassava.
The sun had climbed only a few degrees when we dipped through the sky toward the white beach of the Deep.
Shazer landed lightly, with only a single hop, on the beach at the eastern edge. The sand was so white, it almost glowed. The spires of the main holdings rose into the bright sunlight, glinting as though they’d been shined just this morning.
“We need to make this happen as fast as we can, once we do it,” I said, finally speaking out loud the plan that had formed as we’d flown. “There are ambassadors here from every family. There were none in the Rim. Once we take the stone from Finley, the other ambassadors will have time to get ahead of us and warn Fiametta and Samara.”
“Only if it goes badly.” Bella smoothed out her skirts and I stared at her until she lifted her eyes. “What?”
“If it goes badly? I think we need to count on that.”
I started across the sand, heading for a paved section. Bella remained where she was. I turned. “What?”
“I just . . . I have not been here since you were banished. Finley and I were close then, but those are not the memories that bother me.”
Of course not. The first time in the Deep together, I was her Ender. She was an ambassador. Things had not gone well then, either. Not for her, at least.
I went to her side. “Do you want to leave?”
She shook her head. “No. I only needed a moment to gather myself.”
I waited, feeling the need to move grow until I almost grabbed her. A figure at the edge of the sand approached and raised a hand to us.
“Your Majesty, we had no word of you coming.” Dolph, my one-time teacher and fellow Ender, strode toward us. I took a step back, allowing Bella to lead. She nodded to Dolph, her face smoothing over in a perfect mask.
“Ender Dolph, thank you. It is of great importance that I speak with your queen. A new threat comes at our families.”
He frowned. “We have heard nothing.”
“I know, that is why I came in person rather than send a messenger.” She strode toward him, and I kept step in time with her.
“Finley is not here at the moment,” Dolph said. “But you are welcome to wait for her. I will have rooms ready for you.”
Bella nodded. “That will be fine.”
He led us through the Deep, toward the spire that rested nearest the center. Shazer veered off as we drew close. “I smell . . . uh . . . oats. I will be in the stable if you need me.”
I patted his side and he trotted off down the cobblestone street, wings bobbing.
“I do not smell any oats,” Peta grumped. “But I do smell a mare in heat.”
I clamped my lips shut tightly so as not to laugh. This was not a time for laughter; this was a time for focus.
Once more, I stepped into the Deep, the feeling of being out of my element—literally—surrounding me. The halls were not much changed from my previous visits. Sandstone walls embedded with seashells and pearls, the odd starfish here and there. Smooth stone under our feet, the constant sound of water trickling somewhere. There were not many Undines about, but those that were smiled when they saw us. Behind the smiles I saw suspicion and distrust.