When she returned to her room, Begley was sitting on the edge of his bed. He got to his feet.
“Where have you been?” he asked.
“With my mother,” Caoinlin said, tired and drained.
“Oh.” He sank back again. “How is she?”
“I’m sorry, Cao,” Begley said. He hesitated, but she didn’t. She went to him. And he held her as she cried the last of her tears.
The next night, he came to see her again.
She stood in front of the mirror, locks of hair littering the floor around her like black fog.
“Cao, what have you done?” He stared at her butchered mane, cut to shoulder length.
She tied it back in the fashion of a man. She already wore a jerkin and pants and had wound linen around her chest to flatten her breasts.
“I’m leaving,” she told him. “Are you coming?”
He staggered back a step. “Leaving? What-where are you going?”
“I’ll tell you once we’re far from Redthorn,” she said.
She tugged on the boots she’d commissioned from the cobbler under the pretense of a gift for one of the servants. Begley gawked at her.
When he finally recovered himself, he seized her in a possessive manner that might have startled her, but she’d prepared herself for the possibility that he might try to stop her.
“You can’t do this, Cao.”
Ripping away from him, she belted her sword. It wasn’t Fee’s sword, she’d hidden that, but one she’d taken from the armory. Fiachrin’s sword was too unique, too much of a prince’s sword, and might have been recognized. The sword she’d chosen was a plain arming sword—old, but with little wear. A hours of grinding and polishing and it had come back to life, reclaiming its deadly edge.
“Think of your mother,” Begley said.
Caoinlin snorted. “That’s low, Begley. Using my feelings for my mother. You’re better than that.”
He squared his shoulders. “I won’t let you know.”
“I won’t fight you.”
“Are you afraid I’ll win?”
“No, I’m afraid you’ll lose.”
“I’m better than I was, Cao.”
She sighed. “I know.”
“I can best you.”
Caoinlin considered this. “Perhaps. But you won’t prevent me from leaving.”
Begley’s fists clenched. “Why are you doing this? Can’t you simply” —His jaw flexed—“do as you’re expected to?”
Caoinlin struggled not to lash out at him. “And you expect me to marry Brogan?”
“I expect you to start acting like you should. If you leave, you’ll bring dishonor to us all. Your father will be shamed, your mother, the whole kingdom. If you’re caught, dressed as a man, they’ll kill you. They’ll slit your throat with your own sword and hang you by your heels from an ash tree where the crows will finish the rest of you.”
Caoinlin faced him in the dim, flickering light.
“Are you coming or not?”
He glared. “It’s never enough for you, is it?”
“This isn’t about me.”
“No?” He sneered. “Who then? It’s not about your family or your people or me.”
“I made a promise, to Fee.”
“To Fee?” he repeated incredulously. “You’re going to risk losing everything, risk shame and death, because you made a promise to a frog?”
“He’s not a frog,” she told him.
“I don’t care what he is, if he were here now, what do you think he would say?”
She considered this a moment. “He’d try to stop me.”
Begley stabbed his hands into the air between them. “Then why would you do something he wouldn’t want you to do?”
“Because he only ever thought of what was right, for me.” She slipped on her gloves. “And now it’s time that I do what’s right for him.”
In one swift step, she closed the distance between them and slammed her fist into Begley’s stomach. He let out an oof and doubled over, more of out surprise than pain, she knew. But that was trouble. He didn’t understand her as he should have. After all this time, he should’ve known what she would do. His failure to anticipate disappointed her more than his feeble attempt to use her mother to stop her.
Pulling a dagger from her jerkin, she struck him on back of the head with the handle.
He dropped to the ground, unconscious.
“I’m sorry,” she said down to him. “There’s only one person who can stop me and he’s not here.”
Fee watched her go, from the crevice in the molding, where he’d been for the last week. He would’ve tried to stop her, but after a week of hibernations, his body refused to respond. By the time he’d managed to crawl out of the molding, she’d been gone for a year.
End Part One