Home > The Promised Queen (Forgotten Empires #3)(8)

The Promised Queen (Forgotten Empires #3)(8)
Author: Jeffe Kennedy

“I’m sorry you went through that.” I sagged, lifting my hands to my own face—remembered, and dropped the amputated one to my lap. The orchid on my wrist above the bandage stirred, less colorful and robust than usual. “I didn’t know you’d feel it when I—” No, not going to be able to say it that time. I took a breath, marveling at the way my lungs expanded, my heart pounded. If I reached for it, there was a memory of when my breath had been still, unmoving. I’d found myself pulled back into my own body, but it had become an alien thing to me, a lifeless slab of meat, inert with the dank chill of death. I shivered, thrusting that memory away. Maybe I didn’t want to remember everything after all.

“You don’t have to be sorry,” Con said when I failed to finish that sentence. “I once thought having to watch my father die was the hardest thing I could do. But feeling you die and not being with you was much worse.”

I met his eyes, the rawness in them a mirror to my own. “I felt so alone, you know, at the end.”

He nodded, as if he knew that. “You remember now?”

“That part.” I touched the orchid’s petals, so velvety soft. “The wizards had been trying to find the secret of transferring the orchid, so they’d decided to get Me to the brink of death, hoping the orchid would release. They had Me on this table, with gutters for My blood, so they could catch it in these … urns, and…”

“I saw it,” Con said quietly when I faltered.

Ah. That’s where I’d died and that’s where he’d found me. “When I got near death, they put My blood back in me, adding magic to it, and then drained Me again. Over and over. I don’t know how many times.”

“Oh, Lia…” He sounded as broken as I felt.

“It was awful,” I whispered, taking his hand in my good one, savoring the warrior roughness of it, the warmth and realness of human skin. “You know what I thought about, when I felt death coming?”

He searched my face. “Tell me.” The request came so hoarsely, it was almost without sound.

“You,” I said simply. That memory came back with vivid clarity. At the end, I’d longed for death, welcomed it, only regretting that I wouldn’t see Con again, that I hadn’t kissed him goodbye. And here, already, I’d tried to push him away. I extracted my hand from his grip and lifted it to brush the wetness from his cheeks. “It gave Me comfort, to think about you and the time we’d spent together. And I thought about how you’d laugh, knowing I’d finally put you first.”

He firmed his lips. “I would never laugh at that.”

“I was comforted, because it felt like you were there, that I wasn’t alone.” I was shaking my head. “But if I had realized that it would … affect you, that you’d feel Me, I wouldn’t have done it. I’d have tried to—”

“I’m glad you did,” he said fiercely, wrapping my hand in both of his. “It was my fault, what happened to you, so I deserve to suffer. Nothing that can happen to me would be worse than what you endured, but I’ll take it. I don’t expect you to forgive me, but—”

I stroked his cheek, stilled and held it, cupping his face as he leaned into my touch. “You came for us.”

“There was never a question.”

“No. Even Sondra said so. If only to pursue your vengeance.”

“That’s not why.”

“No?”

“I should have told you, Lia—that night before the battle. I nearly did say so, and I’ve regretted a thousand times that I failed to—but you should know that I … I love you.” He closed his eyes briefly, turning to press a kiss to my palm, then drew in a ragged breath. “I don’t know why that’s so hard to say.”

I wasn’t surprised, not exactly, but somehow I’d never imagined such soft words from this wild wolf of a man. He loved me. I hadn’t expected anyone to love me—not for myself—but I believed he meant it. It felt like a precious gift—and one I didn’t deserve, didn’t know how to reciprocate. I’d spent my entire life navigating tricky political waters, always knowing the right response to give, the exact value of a tribute and how to balance the giving and receiving. But I didn’t know how to handle Con saying he loved me.

I did know, however, that I couldn’t say it back, for so many reasons.

“You and I, we’re not so good at being vulnerable,” I said instead, pushing the words through my tight throat.

He breathed a laugh, lips still against my palm, carefully not looking at me. “No, we’ve learned better, haven’t we? And don’t think that I expect anything different from you because of my … feelings. I just regretted not telling you before, and then you were gone and I couldn’t. I know it’s kind of breaking the rules between us, that our marriage was never supposed to be about emotions.”

“We’re not, anymore, you realize. Married,” I clarified when he frowned in confusion. “You felt the marriage bond break when I died,” I prompted. “You’re absolved of your vows. Besides, the prophecy lied. You claimed My hand, but the empire didn’t fall. We lost.”

His frown deepened. “But I do have your hand still.”

“My hand?” I glanced at the bandaged one, weirdly regrowing. When I managed to get alone, I’d unwrap it and take a good long look.

“Your original hand—and finger—that the wizards … removed. We took it from their workroom. I know that sounds macabre, but your Lord Dearsley kept insisting we bring your body back, no matter what, so I figured that meant all of you. And Ambrose said something about it. Then Sondra said you’d made her promise to burn your body rather than let it remain in Yekpehr. So we brought it.”

“I’m glad.” I remembered some of that, how the wizards had discussed burying my body and harvesting orchids from it, how I’d exacted that promise from Sondra. “So you’ve quite literally claimed the hand that wore the orchid ring and escaped a marriage you never wanted. Cleverly done.”

“What? No, that’s not—”

“Oh, come now, Conrí.” I extracted my hand from his hold. “We both know you hated being My husband. Court life felt like a cage to you.”

“No—you don’t get to do that.” He folded his hands around my head, holding me there and staring intently into my eyes. “Did you hear me when I said I love you?”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean—”

“It does mean,” he interrupted. “I don’t care about the rest of it. I’d wear salt-encrusted armor made of rusty blades if it meant I could stay with you. I was never happier in my life than I was being your husband.”

I nearly laughed, but he looked far too serious. “Con, please. You were miserable.”

“I was too stupid to know what I had,” he insisted. “And now I have a second chance. At least, I hope you’ll give me one. We’ll get married again. If you want to,” he added with less confidence, searching my face.

“It’s not necessary,” I said, feeling my way through it. Not succeeding, because his face hardened into disappointment.

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