And Aurelia burst past the man in the doorway. When had she saved anyone? Her feet took her down the stairs and onto the high edge of the street. She sped up.
Then plowed straight into Robert.
His arms folded around her, and she clung to the young man who had kept her alive and sane throughout exile. They had lived together due to need rather than romance; yet he had been her lifeline—the one tie to her past, her country, and to herself. His left hand rose, splaying fingers across her hair.
He loved her.
Had told her once, before their exile. But she could not return the words. She did not dare alter their relationship—could not afford to lose him. So she just . . . held on with every rational fiber of her being. Which was not enough.
He had not kissed her in weeks.
She knew the distance was her own fault. Something within her refused greater intimacy—beyond her reluctance to risk bearing a child and ending all ties with the throne she had already lost. But she could not name the greater cause of her fear because she was not brave enough to delve that deep. Easier to blame the faltering romance on her and Robert’s wretched schedules. Why was he here now? He should still be working.
Then she knew.
He must already have seen the horseman. How else would Drew have found her? Robert would have been easy to find at the dockside stables. Which meant he had already heard everything. Had left her—alone—to hear the news.
She slammed her hands against his chest and yanked away.
“Aurelia, hold on.”
Did he think she could bear hearing how her country was falling apart? She ran, the terrain tugging her upward, above the mist that clung to the ocean’s rim, into late-afternoon light. Her feet found a red-brick path, and its clay surface blurred beneath her until at last it spread into a wide plaza scattered with statues.
Aurelia whipped around a stone figure so old it was faceless.
Neither Drew nor Robert had chased her. Why should they? She had nowhere to go. Had already left behind everything that held any meaning to her.
She paced around a second statue, this time trying to catch her breath as her mind conjured the young man she had just fled. Those blue eyes that rarely now showed anything other than concern. His dark-brown hair, threaded by nervous fingers. His face, shadowed by hours of labor. She knew it was not his fault she had agreed to leave her country. He only wanted her safe. She was the one who had not been strong enough to find a way to save Tyralt.
Come home, Drew had said. Nothing could be more devastating.
Her steps sailed to the edge of the plaza, and her gaze flew out over the capital of the Outer Realms. She had tried to belong here.
But her heart felt only the tug of the ocean.
And beyond. Her soul begged for the crimson waves of the Geordian Desert, the spectacular sunsets of the frontier, and the drifting Tyralt River as it curled its way through her own city. Home.
She whirled and almost crashed against another statue—a stone woman with a crown.
The key of Tyralt, on the chain beneath Aurelia’s collar, chafed at her throat. Tyralt’s capital was in Melony’s hands now; the desert in Anthone’s. And the men, women, and children of the frontier? I should have stayed. Should have fought. Should have died.
A bell rang. The first of the city’s evening bells, the heavy tone matching the feelings of inadequacy in her heart. Three base notes for the years of plague that had almost stripped the Outer Realms of its strength. Next a long, deep clang for the fruitless ten-year war with the Distant Isles. And then the pealing rings of celebration. For freedom.
Her gaze swept to the high marble facade of the building beside the plaza—the building she had trudged to reach before dawn every day of the past year. Along the servants’ path, down the steps to the kitchens, where she had learned to work. In this palace that was not a palace. Not in the traditional form. Here there was no monarch. Only a leader who had been chosen as a guide of the Realms for six years. The palace belonged to no one—except the people.
Why could her own homeland not function like this?
If it did, the citizens of Tyralt would not need a hero. They can speak for themselves, Robert had once said. And he was right.
The pealing of the bells stopped, but the final notes echoed back at her. Why could her people not rule their own country?
Because no one has suggested the idea.
Hadn’t she herself been stunned eighteen months before by this concept—that the citizens here chose their leader, then chose another a mere handful of years later? But this government could not be destroyed by one warped personality or one act of cowardice. Her people could embrace this system. They could rule themselves. All they needed was someone to share the possibility.
I could, Aurelia realized. I could be that person. I might not be an adequate ruler, but I can provide them with this vision. So they can choose. They can determine the future of Tyralt.
Her feet began to move without guidance. Back down the hillside into the mist. Of course the system could work in her homeland! Hadn’t Robert himself told her that a leader was not determined by a crown?
She stumbled into a puddle. Robert! What would she tell him?
That she was going back to a kingdom in which she was no longer the secret prey of her sister’s assassination attacks, but rather the most highly prized enemy of the queen. A country also under attack by the ancient king whose hand in marriage Aurelia had spurned.
She could already hear Robert’s sarcasm. Return in the midst of an active, ill-destined war? Yes, Aurelia, I think we should go home now.
But somehow she would have to explain that she was not herself here.
Nothing could alter the guilt.
The knowledge that she had done nothing—had left Tyralt and her people in the hands of the sister she, herself, was too inept to fight. The only way she wins is if you gift her with your death, Robert had told Aurelia. But exile while her country suffered was equal to death.
Some things were more important than her survival.
He would have to—
Deluged by her own thoughts, she had trekked down the brick path, along the edge of the lower, water-logged streets and up the warped steps.
To the entrance to the lodging she and he shared.
The door was open.
Outside it, heaped in a pile, rested a crate, blankets, two folded pallets, and a ragged canvas bag Robert had brought all the way from Tyralt.
He had already begun to pack.