Yarek gave Jared a long look before patting his shoulder. “They all say that. And they all get used to it. Eventually.”
Jared waited until he heard the mare’s hoofbeats before he approached Reyna’s greenhouse.
She’d found a bucket of water and the specially shaped dipper Reyna had used to water the seedlings.
“Lia.” Jared waited for her to acknowledge his presence.
Feeling awkward, he shifted his weight from one foot to the other as he watched her move from pot to pot, speaking so softly he couldn’t make out the words that weren’t meant for him anyway.
She held the dipper in her left hand. Two fingers of her right hand rested just above the soil in the pot. She poured the water over her fingers and murmured a phrase. The same movements, the same words, over and over.
It wasn’t until he really looked at the seedlings in the first pots and saw how much stronger and greener they looked than the rest of the plants that he realized what she was doing.
According to their oldest legends, the Blood had been created to be the caretakers of the Realm, to use the awesome power they’d been given to maintain the balance between the land and all its creatures. As the caretakers, they became the rulers of everything that walked upon Terreille or flew above it or swam in its waters.
The price of power was service. Or so the legends said.
The Blood had a deep respect for the land. Many had a special gift for nurturing it.
But only a Queen could heal it once it had been wounded. Only a Queen’s blood and a Queen’s strength could turn barren ground back into fertile soil.
They were, after all, the land’s heart.
Coming up behind her, Jared lifted her right hand and poured water from the dipper over it to clean the cuts she’d made on her fingertips.
“No, Lia,” he said gently, turning her around.
She stared at his chest. “Let me do this. I need to do this.”
Jared shook his head. “There’s nowhere to plant them. There’s nowhere for them to go.” Was that true for the Shalador people as well? he wondered. Would they, too, wither and die?
Since she didn’t pull away from him, he slipped his arms around her and nudged her closer. He sighed when her hands touched his waist.
“I used to help her in here,” Jared said in a hushed voice. “She always said I had to make myself useful if I was going to—”
“Going to what?” Lia asked when he didn’t continue.
Jared grimaced. “If I was going to pester her.”
Lia chuckled. “No wonder you’re so good at it. You’ve been in training your whole life.”
Jared made a rumbling sound, which amused her even more.
Drawing her closer, he rested -his cheek on the top of her head. “I saw her once, a few months after I was Ringed.
During the training time. I don’t know if she was in that particular Territory for another reason and just happened to be walking in that plaza that day or if she’d somehow found out where I was and had come to see me.
“I saw her. It would have been hard to miss a golden-skinned woman with shining black hair that flowed to her waist and those rare green eyes.” He paused. “I have her eyes.”
Lia stroked his back.
“The witches in charge of the training saw her, too. They didn’t know, or care, who she was, only that her presence there was important to me. One of them walked over to me and fondled me through my clothes. And there was nothing I could do about it. There was nothing they’d done to me up to that point that had humiliated me quite that much. In a way, it’s ironic that I felt so much shame because Shalador boys look forward to the day when we’re old enough for the Fire Dance, for the time when we’ll step into the dance circle and display ourselves to every woman in the village. I wouldn’t have been dancing for my mother, but I would have danced in front of her and never given it a thought.”
“That’s different,” Lia murmured. “That would have been your choice, and it was part of the male rites among your people.”
“Yes,” Jared whispered, not sure he could bear her understanding. “So I went up to her, and I told her it was her fault. That all of it was her fault. That it was because of her that I was Ringed and would never know any pleasure with a woman. That if she’d been a different kind of woman, this wouldn’t have happened to me.
“Then I told her I hated her, and I walked away.
“I looked back just once. She was on the ground, curled up in a tight ball. No one stopped. No one touched her or tried to help her.”
“I blamed her for a long time because it was safer to blame someone else. But I couldn’t forget the look in her eyes when I said those things. I couldn’t forget seeing her on the ground.
“When I stopped blaming her, the only thing I wanted to do was go home. I even made a couple of timid attempts to escape, but I was too terrified of the agony the Ring can produce to manage it. So I used to lie in my bed and imagine that I’d gotten home somehow. Just for an hour. Just long enough to see her, to talk to her. Just long enough . . . And now I’m home, and it’s too late. I’m too late, and I’ll never be able to take back the words.”
Lia held him while he cried. He had no tears yet for his father and brother. There would be time enough to mourn them later. There was no room in him to grieve for anyone but Reyna.
She held him long after the last tear.
“What was she like?” Lia asked softly.
Jared wiped his face on his coat sleeve. “Compassionate. Generous, stubborn, strong, loving, patient, courageous.”Like you .
Lia took his hand. “There’s something I want to show you.”
She led him to the back of the greenhouse and pointed to three large, glazed pots. Each one was divided into two sections and contained two seedling trees. “Someone must be caring for them. They’re the only healthy plants here.”
Love formed a lump in Jared’s throat that was sharper than grief. “Those are our luck and love pots,” he said, his voice husky. “And these”—he brushed a leaf with his fingertip—“are honey pear trees.”
Lia leaned over, brushing her fingers over the leaves and thin trunks while she crooned to the little trees.
“Reyna gave each of us one of these pots on our sixth birthday. Luck and love, she called them. There’s a hollow in the base. In the spring, we’d write down a wish or a dream or a desire and then fold the paper and pass it through the base into the hollow. Then we could plant any seeds or seedlings we wanted in the pot. They were ours to care for. Some years they grew. There were a lot of years when the seedlings started out well enough, but then we’d forget about them.