Fiachrin swam while Caoinlin was away.
She’d gone for a walk, as he had earlier. He considered following her, but thought better of it.
She needed time.
And he needed it as well.
By the time she returned, he was deep into a brood and still reclining in the pond. He didn’t acknowledge her arrival or emerge from the water.
After a while, she came over and sat at the edge, just as she used to, though, with her pants on, she didn’t submerge her legs. She finished telling him the rest of what had happened, her face composed and her emotions in hand. It was mostly Conlan talking, reporting, like a sergeant to a captain.
At some point, he hefted out of the water and she didn’t even blink at his nakedness.
He asked curt questions throughout the evening, focusing on state matters. There was a great deal too much to cover in one night, as far as the governance of a newly united kingdom. But there was something calming about turning his mind to taxes and laws and infrastructure, much more so than mulling over Caoinlin and what he was going to say to her when she truly returned. He was relieved when they said good night and she turned her back to him and they both lay there, pretending to be asleep. It gave him more time to work out a way to be reasonable.
It was ridiculous for him to be angry, to be jealous. But he was. And if what he feared was true, then he was beyond angry, he was enraged. As for jealousy, well, that was already as bad as it got and it was bad enough when there was still the possibility that it wasn’t true. Somehow, he’d misconstrued. Caoinlin wouldn’t—
He fell into a listless sleep, telling himself that he was wrong. And knowing in his gut that he wasn’t.
The next morning, after they’d eaten, Caoinlin went to tend to Gauner. Fiachrin followed her, the little way into the trees, out of earshot of Nevan, he hoped.
Caoinlin didn’t turn when he approached. They hadn’t spoken yet. She was distant again. But he’d waited. He’d waited fourteen years and though he had been considered generously-gifted with the virtue of patience, that well was near dry.
Caoinlin brushed the courser’s gleaming black flank. The top of her head didn’t even meet the ridge of the war-horse’s spine.
Fiachrin put his hand out to the stallion, who blew a warm, wet snort into his palm and then nuzzled his nose into it.
“You’ll spoil him,” Fiachrin said.
Caoinlin didn’t respond, nor did she look at him. She continued brushing as though he wasn’t there.
“Do you know how you broke the spell?” Fiachrin said, scratching Gauner’s chin.
This slowed her progress little by little as if the words were traveling a great distance, a syllable at a time, until each one finally reached her and she stopped altogether. She looked up at him. That was strange. To have her look up at him. He was so used to looking up at her, for a second the change in perspective made the world tilt a little. But she was shorter, her eyes level just below his collar-bone. He reminded himself that this was how it should’ve been, that this was the way the world was supposed to be.
He’d put the question before her to get her attention and now that he had it, the answer stuck in his throat. Her eyes skimmed over him and then penetrated him. He’d forgotten how they could do that, how she could locate the quick of a person’s being in one sharp stare. Yet, when she delved to his core, she didn’t come back wielding what she’d found as a weapon (as she had in the past), instead, she dropped her gaze.
“We should leave soon,” she said.
“What about your father?”
Her eyes snapped up to him. “I’m not ready to see him.”
“Caoinlin, he needs to see you.”
“And your father needs to see you,” she countered. “And I intend to take you to him.”
“He deserves to know that you’re alive,” Fiachrin said.
“I’m not ready,” Caoinlin repeated.
He sighed, sensing that this was not an argument he could win, wondering if there was any argument he could win.
“Where was the wound that you received from the Ulic who escaped?”
Her eyes narrowed, but she gestured to a spot just below her left shoulder.
“Is there a scar?”
She nodded, still watching him.
“May I see it?”
Her hands untied the knot and loosened the lacing at her collar, all the time, her expression stony. She pulled the shirt down, over her shoulder, so that he could see the thin white scar above the crease between her arm and chest, partially covered by the cloth she wrapped around her breasts. After a moment, she straightened her shirt.
“That was the only wound?” he asked, fighting hard to keep his temper down.
She nodded again, turning her attention to the laces to tighten them. He seized her right shoulder and her gaze flew up, she tensed as though they were about to fight, but instead, he ran his other hand down her left shoulder and stopped where the scar was, splitting his fingers over it, feeling the pulsing veins under his fingers. Veins that had been skillfully, and willfully, avoided.
“This was how he did it,” Fiachrin said, through a tightening throat. “Isn’t it?”
She remained motionless.
“He let you go,” Fiachrin continued dangerously. “You told him to wound you. It couldn’t be superficial—”
She wrenched away from him, stepping back. Her lip trembled, her brow plunged deeply.
“A stab wound to the chest,” he said, cold though he was boiling. “Convincing enough.”
“You told me not to talk about him,” she said softly. “You said he wasn’t important.”
“I said? You mean the voice in your head,” he spat. “Even so, I wonder why I would’ve said something like that!”
Color rose up her neck, blotching around her wounds. “For the same reason you don’t want to hear about it now.”
“Wrong,” he said. “You need to tell me what happened. The truth, Caoinlin!”
He took her arm and jerked her toward him, something that perhaps, no man had done. He dragged her into his shadow and shook even himself with the tremor of his voice. “Look at me.”
She glared up at him but didn’t struggle, though he knew that if she’d wanted to, she could’ve easily hurt him, killed him even.
“He knew you were a woman?”
Mutely, she nodded.
“In the prison?”
“Yes,” she said through her teeth.
“Did he threaten you?”
“Did you help him, and others escape?”
She yanked back on his grip, but not enough to pull free. “No!”
“Did you know they would try?”
“If Moppel and others hadn’t attacked they would’ve never had the opportunity! They pulled the keys off one of the guards during the fight. It was opportunistic, not planned.”
“And what happened after that, that was opportunistic, too?” He was seething now, the veins in his forehead throbbing.
“I didn’t know he would kidnap me. It happened just as I said, I was unconscious.”
“And when you woke up?”
“My hands were bound and my feet.”
He could bare speak, for anger, for incredulity. “And then?”
For a second, her eyes flicked away and he was near shaking her, and then she was back, piercing through him.
“And then,” she growled. “They weren’t.”
His vision blackened for a second. A second in which everything seemed to stop, his lungs, his heart, and then they started again, at racing speed and he had to close his eyes to remain still and stop the world from quavering.
A second in which he realized that his suspicious, wild and impossible as they had seemed to him, had been true.
He could tell, from the way she’d spoken, that she’d had some sort of feelings for the Ulic. But he hadn’t wanted to believe it. He’d been clinging to the possibility that his instincts had been wrong.
But he hadn’t been wrong.
“He’s gone,” she said, almost entreatingly. “You told me to forget about him and I did.”
“Fine! The voice in my head. What difference does it make? He’s not here!”
Fiachrin’s jaw ached from the clenching. “And if he were?”
Her eyes darkened. “I told him if he ever returned I’d kill him.”
“Yes,” she hissed.
He released her and stalked away. “I can’t believe this.”
He spun around. “Do you know what you did? Do you have any—” His ears rang from the fury and disbelief pounding through him. “How could you?” He wasn’t shouting, he was barely breathing. He was growling from someplace deep and dark in his chest. His hands squeezed and loosened, squeezed and loosened, each time tightening a little more. “The great savior of the island. The banisher of the Ulic.” The words stung his tongue as he spat them out. “Lover to Arthor’s son and heir. You’re a traitor.”
Her eyes bulged. “You’re calling me a traitor?” Her stance was near pounce.
Rage had seized hold of him completely. “Be grateful that’s all I’m calling you!”
She stormed up to him, hissing. “And you should be grateful that I have neither my sword nor as much arrogant pride as you have!”
“Get away from me.” His words tasted like cold iron.
She stepped back as if he’d driven a dagger into her chest.
Spinning, he marched away.
What else could he do? That much took all his strength to manage. He didn’t look back at her, he didn’t want to see her, or think about her. He felt betrayed. Not on behalf of the country, though there was some cause for that. No, the betrayal was wholly personal.
He kept walking. He didn’t stop. Not at the heights of the heat of the day. Not when the light began to fade. Not when the stars appeared.