“You are working with Cassava and Blackbird.”
“You mean Raven?”
“No. My brother is dead to me. I mean Blackbird.”
Her lips twitched. “Fine. Yes, they are my chosen ones. Chaos, Lark. That is all the world understands. And even while you try to patch up the messes I’ve created, as you try to put better leaders into the families, you cause chaos. I think you are right. I think you would be better off with me at your back. I would have saved you.”
I took a step back, and Peta and Ash moved with me. “Then why didn’t you come to save Blackbird? I had him in my hands, his life was draining.”
Her eyes narrowed. “How could we save our two chosen ones at the same time?”
Without moving, I reached out with my connection to the earth, the flood of strength buoying me up. The mother goddess raised an eyebrow. “You wish to fight me?”
“No.” I raised my left hand and pointed with two fingers at the oubliette. Vines snaked out from the jungle, forking like snake tongues. They grabbed at the opening of the oubliette and wrenched it apart with a violent tear. “Stay away from me. Both of you. I will chose my path from now on.”
With a second flick of my hand I sent the vines to her and scooped her up. She laughed. “You think to hurt me?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Ever hear of a slingshot?”
Her eyes widened and she let out a screech as I pulled the vines toward me, then sent them flinging away at a speed my eyes couldn’t follow.
“I can’t believe you flung the mother goddess through the jungle.” Ash put a hand on my arm, turning me to him. “Remind me never to get on your bad side.” He smiled and I burst into tears. He caught me against his chest, murmuring into my hair over and over. “Easy, Lark. Easy.”
A thump of dirt spun us around and I stared up into the wingspan of the only Pegasus in the world. Shazer stuffed his nose into my chest and breathed me in. “It’s about fucking time you showed up.”
I held his face for a moment and kissed his nose. “I missed you too.” He snorted, but I was already looking past him to the man who slid off his back. Cactus had aged in the two years I’d been gone. His body was harder, his face no longer open as it had been.
Yet in the glimmer of his green eyes, I still saw the boy who’d stolen my heart while we’d played in the forest.
He caught me up in his arms and I clung to him. Ash put a hand on my back, Peta pressed against my leg, and Shazer hooked his neck around us.
I clung to them all, knowing they would help me fight the darkness that had found me in the oubliette. They had to.
Because without them, I had no doubt I would lose my mind.
The fire crackled hot as the others slept. But I could not close my eyes to the sky above me, the view of the stars and the feel of the earth below me. Touching my power was like opening a conduit I’d never understood.
It was strength and freedom. It was my life.
I stood and crept away from the fire, leaving Peta curled with Ash and Cactus asleep only a few feet from where they lay.
“Sneaking away?” Shazer asked as I reached the edge of the tight clearing. I reached up and ran a hand over his back.
He was quiet a moment, and the night air lay heavy on my shoulders. Or maybe that was the responsibilities that crashed down around me the second I’d stepped out of the oubliette.
“You know, I never wanted to be tied to an elemental. You’re all bastards.” He pawed at the earth with a front hoof. “Yet here I am tied to you.”
“Still? I thought you came with Cactus out of friendship.” I kept my hand on his back, taking comfort in his nearness.
“No. The mother goddess made it clear I am to fly with you until she dictates.”
So. He was doing what he had to, too.
We weren’t close like Peta and I. Maybe that was why I could open up to him. There was no emotional bond, no worry I’d freak him out.
“I’ve always held back, Shazer. Always. Fear, for the most part. But also the expectations of being a good girl. Of being what my father wants. Of what is expected of me.”
“We all have that moment.” He shook his head. “Question is . . . what are you going to do about it?”
“Subtle,” I said.
“I’m all about the finer points of dialogue.”
I looked into the night sky, as if the answers would be written there, clear for me to see. Variables spun out—Bella, my father, Blackbird, and Cassava. But there were only so many things I could do. And only a few of them were essential.
“Cassava needs to die and my father needs to name his heir. Then I can be free of this.”
“Free? Would you not go back to your home?”
I shook my head. Aria’s words from so long ago echoed in my heart. “The Rim is not my home. My home is here, with you and Peta. With Ash and Cactus. That is where I bloom.”
He butted me lightly. “Then you have your answer. I will fly you to wherever you wish. Will it be the Eyrie then, to find a trace of your father? Or to the Rim to confront Cassava?”
I closed my eyes and for a moment I felt as though the oubliette was around me. I reached out and grabbed his mane, leaning into him, breathing the scent of sweet grass and horse sweat into my lungs, allowing it to center me. There was a tug on my soul, like a thread tied to me that I could not deny.
I lifted my head and stared into the jungle. I recognized the touch of her ability as she Tracked me.