I jolted from blackness to soft, buttery sunlight shining through a small window in front of me. I glanced down, noted the rough-woven linens covering me, the small bed. Picking my head up I noted the stark, bare walls, the walls I'd seen only…
Well I didn't know how long it had been since I'd been in Torryn's home.
And there, beside me, there was Merryn, looking every bit as horrible as I felt as I recalled the dream I'd just had.
"It was real," he said quietly, those silvery-blue eyes a muted grey. "It all happened."
My heart stopped dead in my chest for a moment. "No," I breathed. "It can't have been. I–"
Merryn was shaking his head, and his face, it was pale and drawn. As if…
"No," I repeated. "He's not– I didn't–" I couldn't form any words as the soul-crushing heartbreak and the pain washed over me anew. The pain that I had felt in that nightmare. "No."
And the power.
"You're the Lady Rí Starlight now," Merryn said.
"You were Crowned the moment your father's heart stopped beating," Merryn said, his tone cold and factual. Bland. As if he too didn't want to believe it, didn't want it to be true. "Everyone felt the power shift from him to you when he died. It's true."
No. My lungs seizes as I shook my head and said the words no over and over. No. I took a breath, or tried to, and only gasped.
"It's only been a few hours. You were knocked out cold from the transfer."
It couldn't be true. I couldn't have taken my father's place. He couldn't be– I'd never even gotten to tell him I loved him. Or even speak to him again…
"You broke the curse," Merryn continued as I internally fought and raged and broke. "After tricking Colwyn into thinking you'd raised his mate, you broke the curse."
He was not dead. He could not be dead. Not after everything. No.
"And yes, you avenged your father's death by killing Colwyn," Merryn stated blandly. As if the thought neither bothered him nor pleased him. "Though none of us think you were exactly in your right mind when you did," he added, as if in afterthought. But even those words, they were hollow.
I'd…. "Rhys, is he–"
Merryn turned his head to gaze out the window, jaw clenching. "King Rhyson is preparing for his father's burial. And his upcoming coronation," he said and I felt myself go still, even the pain and rage and broken, shattered pieces of my heart stopped ripping apart.
My father was… gone. And I'd taken Rhys' father from him as well. I'd given Rhys the one thing he'd said he never wanted.
"I've been told to inform you that you will not be held accountable for the former Solar King's death," Merryn said, eyes still locked on the window. "And that you are… welcome to stay here now, in the Solar Kingdom." He swallowed. "And take over rule of your Court from your aunt."
Galena. I hadn't even thought… I buried my head in my hands, rubbing at the tears that I hadn't realized were falling down my face, running rivers over my cheeks. What would she do? How would she react? Would she hate me, knowing I was the reason my father was now dead?
"The others are downstairs, though Rhun is still recovering in the same room as the night before. They're discussing the latest developments."
My head snapped back up.
"What developments?" I croaked out.
Merryn turned back to face me, face still drawn and tired. But there, in the dim dullness of his silvery eyes, there was a tiny spark of lightning.
"When Nyneve disappeared, she somehow managed to snatch the book," he said. "Samira said it was mostly likely the wind she'd used to bring it to her." He paused, taking a deep breath. "And Queen Adyna arrived, not too long after we got everyone out of the palace and back here. Rhyson met with her."
My brows knotted together, and I thanked my newfound confusion for stopping the flow of tears as I said, "Why are you telling me about that?"
"Because she knew," Merryn said. "She felt the power shift from Emrys to you." My breath hitched at his words, but he went on, "She felt the power shift from Colwyn to Rhyson. And she felt it when you broke the curse she created over three centuries ago. She wants to meet with you."
Hell no. If she were cruel enough to curse the Red Sand People– all of them– centuries ago, there was no telling what she'd do to me.
"I don't think I'm ready to do anything but go back to sleep," I said.
Merryn scanned me, eyes darting over the length of my body in the bed before he found my eyes again and nodded once.
Then he left the room.
It was after dusk when I finally padded down the stairs, dressed in a simple tunic and pants from the pack that had been brought up sometime during my rest.
Everyone was sitting at the table, eating the evening meal. Rhun looked far better than he had the night we'd left, some color having come back to his face. The night before my world had burned down around me, leaving me fatherless. There was one noticeable absence, but I didn't think I'd be seeing Rhys again anytime soon. I didn't think I wanted to.
And there was also someone I hadn't expected to see, her bright-red hair causing the image of my father's blood-stained tunic– vivid-red under starlight– to reel across my mind. I stumbled a step at the bottom of the stairs when I saw her. Saw her hair like waves of cascading blood down her back.
Her name was Chrysana, and she was Rhys' sister.
Everyone snapped their attention to me, faces drawn and wary. Especially Chrysana's, though I couldn't say why. She hadn't sounded as if she particularly cared for her father the last time I'd seen her.
Before I'd killed him.
"We were just discussing our plans, Valyn," Rhun said as I caught my breath and exhaled, pushing the image of my father's blooded and lifeless body from my mind.
"What plans?" I asked as I continued to walk towards the table, towards them.
"You have options," Rhoan said as I took a seat next to Samira, who put her hand on mine in my lap.
"What do you mean?" I said.
Uneasy glances were cast among all but Torryn, who sat at the table next to Merryn, expression as unreadable as Merryn's.
"You can stay here," Chrysana said. "In the Solar Kingdom. Either at the palace or in your own lands."
My lands, she'd said. I had lands now. Because my father had died, passing his power and position on to me.
"Or," Rhun said, drawing out the word and nearly glaring at Chrysana. "You can come back to the island with us."
I looked each of them over, stopping on Merryn. "You're not going back, are you?"
Merryn shook his head, face still blank and still as stone. "No, I'm needed here. I go back to the palace tonight."
I swallowed and forced myself to ask, "And the king?" I couldn't say his name. Not aloud. Not after I had done the one thing he'd asked me, begged us, not to.
Something flashed in Merryn's eyes, something I couldn't decipher. There one moment, gone within a heartbeat. He said, "There are no demands being placed on you. If you chose to return to the palace or even leave the kingdom altogether, Lady Galena would continue her stewardship of the Starlight Court."
Something Rhys had once told me she was happy doing in my father's absence.
I turned to Rhun. "And if I chose to go with you all?"
Rhun didn't quite smile, it was a small thing, no doubt due to the pain he knew I must be feeling. The numbness too. But it wasn't bitter or sorrowful except in understanding. He said, "You broke our people's curse. You would be welcomed for that alone. But you are also of Red Sand blood. You may find a place there as you wish. Doing what you wish."
A choice. And even in that choice, a choice.
"And the Seasonal Queen?" I asked, remembering Merryn's words from earlier.
All jaws clenched. Even Torryn's. And Samira's hand on mine under the table twitched, as if she were holding herself back from forming it into a fist.
"Eventually we may have to deal with her… requests to meet her granddaughter," Rhun said. "But that time is not now."
So it could wait. I could wait. Until…
"And the book?" I asked, remembering again what Merryn said.
"We're trying to track Nyneve down," Rhoan said. "But she's disappeared pretty quickly and pretty efficiently. We'll find her given enough time though."
I nodded. It wasn't like I needed the book anymore. I'd broken the curse. I'd… Colwyn was dead, so he couldn't raise the dead or make himself High-King anymore.
"If you were to stay," Chrysana said, "you would be welcome in the Solar Kingdom as well."
I shot her an incredulous look. "I killed your father."
She swallowed, but said in a clear voice, "No one holds it against you."
"Rhys will," I said.
Chrysana said, "Rhys will get over it. He has to. You're–"
Rhun cut in, "I would be more than happy to have you return with us. We all would."
Rhoan nodded at his brother's words and Samira squeezed my hand lightly.
I tilted my head, looked everyone in the eye, even Torryn, for several moments apiece in silence. Perhaps someday… Perhaps someday I could come back here. Face what had happened. What I had done in retaliation to it all. What I had cost Rhys who had only helped us. Helped me. But for now…
"Let's go back home," I said to Rhun.