“Not who you expected?” Begley said when he saw Caoinlin’s expression.
She turned her gaze back to the water. “No.”
The sky was purple. The sunset almost bled out. A cool breeze brushed through the leaves. Frogs sang from every crevice. The calm water smelled clean and chilly. Caoinlin ached, physically, mentally, emotionally. For the last three weeks she had trained every day, as much as she could bear. And each day she went a little longer, struck a touch truer, moved a bit easier. At the end of each day, she came to the pond and waited, though she was spent, because she was spent.
Begley sat down beside her.
“I miss what we used to be,” she said.
Begley’s face was obscured by shadow, but she could sense the torn expression working on it.
“What was it like, Cao?” he said, softly.
“Being a hero?”
Caoinlin could not crush the question with a brutal laugh, as she might have wished. She twined a blade of grass around her finger. It bent so easily.
“Lonely,” she said.
“You did it though,” he said, “all on your own.”
“No,” she said. “Not on my own, never. Many people helped me. I never would have survived on my own.”
“But you just gave it up,” he said, “everything you earned.”
“One of the first things I realized was that if I wanted to succeed, it wouldn’t ever be for my gain, for my glory.”
“Because you were a woman?”
She ran her thumb over the slick skin of the grass.
“Because I was the Mhasc Caoin.” She shivered and lost her breath for a moment. “The Mhasc Caoin wasn’t human, Begley. It was something that needed to exist. It was something I survived. For a long time, I didn’t believe I would survive.”
Begley shifted, letting his legs cross and fall open, his knee brushed hers and she looked at him.
“I thought you were dead, Cao,” he said. “Can you ever forgive me?”
“You don’t need to be forgiven, Begley.”
“Neither do you.”
She dropped her eyes, tears pricking at their edges.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
Tentative, his fingers touched her hand and she turned her palm to his and clasped it.
“These things happen for a reason, Cao,” he said, “I didn’t understand what that reason was . . . until I met him,” she could hear the smirk in his voice, “again.”
A resurgent ache flowed fresh through her.
“He knew,” Begley said, “the second I arrived in Blackstone, he knew. He was waiting for me to come and tell him that you had returned.”
Begley squeezed her hand and then released it. “You should’ve gone to him.”
“I know,” she said, softly.
“He’s the same,” Begley said, chuckling. “The same way he was a frog. Bossy.”
She smiled and, though she did not look up, she knew Begley smiled too.
“He is the king,” she said, her smile fading.
“And smart,” Begley said, “And proud . . . he’s about as bossy and smart and proud as you. You’ve met your match, I think.”
She found it hard to take a breath. “I know.”
“Will you win?”
Inside, a growl. “Would you hate me if I said that I don’t want to win?”
“I never hated you,” he said, “which is why I was angry. It would’ve been easier to hate you.”
“Would you believe me if I said that I’ve never lost?”
“Maybe,” he said, “you might be wrong.”
“You’ve lost,” he said. “You’ve lost plenty. Just because you’ve never lost with a sword drawn doesn’t mean you haven’t lost.”
“But I will have my sword drawn, Begley,” she said. “You’re as great a warrior as any I’ve fought. I thought that our fight would be hardest I’d ever have to face.”
“That’s quite a compliment,” he said, “considering you killed Arthor.”
“I stabbed him the back.”
“He never even raised his sword.”
Begley seemed to ruminate on this. “It’s nothing like what we imagined, is it?”
“Will you speak to him for me?” she said, her mouth drying out as she asked.
“Oh . . .” Begley leaned away from her.
He rubbed the back of his neck, shaking his head. “What would you have me say?”
“Ask him to meet me here.”
She hated the pity on his face, but she accepted it. She felt pitiful.
“Cao,” he said apologetically, “he knows you’re here.”
“Tell him that I asked,” she insisted. “Tell him that I said I need to see him.”