I watched Amihanna run up the wall with Eshrin. I knew that I should go sit with Himani and talk about what she was doing, who she was, what she was capable of, but for a moment I couldn’t. I couldn’t do my job and be the king. I couldn’t be anyone other than Lorne ni Taure, a man who’d just seen a very, very minuscule glimpse into the dark past of someone he loved with every vibration of his soul.
I watched her move, but all I saw were echoes of her as a child climbing into that dumpster.
My heart was shattered, but she had no clue about how truly destroyed I was by the images I’d seen today.
In watching, I finally saw the full extent of her strength and resilience, and some of the shattered bits inside my heart healed. Not all, but some.
I’d learned bits and pieces about her past, but she’d never gone into such detail. She’d only tell me that her life had been hard, dangerous, and at times, very traumatizing, but she never really told me anything concrete. The only things I knew for certain were from the vids released about her. But now I knew. Now, I’d seen how her thirteen years of terror began, and I wanted to know more.
I needed to know everything.
A hand came around my waist and Elizabeth leaned her head against my chest. “She’s okay.”
Rysden moved to my other side, but he wasn’t looking at me. He was watching his daughter, just as I was. I wondered if we were thinking the same thing.
Amihanna flipped to the ground, and without waiting a beat, was running back toward the wall. Her guards were trying to keep up with her, but she was fast. So fast. Faster than any other living Aunare.
Her skin was bright and her fao’ana were fully on display as she ran with a grin on her face. I wasn’t sure what she was thinking right now, but I knew she was happy. It was beautiful to watch her when she was being her true self.
Maybe now she was heading toward okay, but she’d been having nightmares again the last few nights. Now I knew why. She must’ve been scanning through footage for the interview, and that had to have reopened wounds that were only just starting to heal.
She looked strong today. Fierce. Determined. Confident. Yet even as she hit the top of the wall again, I remembered her screaming last night. Her screams ripped me from sleep, and I held her—shaking, sobbing—to me, desperately trying to calm her down. It’d taken nearly an hour to get her breathing steady and we hadn’t gone back to sleep after that.
“Do you truly believe that she’s okay?” I asked Elizabeth.
“Amihanna has always been okay.”
I looked at her then, trying to assess whether she was being dense or dismissive of what Amihanna had been through, but I couldn’t tell which. If her nightmares were from Earth—not just Abaddon—how many years had Elizabeth ignored her daughter’s health? “That’s an aberration of the truth, and you know it. I’m there when she screams at night. Seeing the two of you climbing into the dumpster while Aunare are being slaughtered all around you—”
“She’s fine.” Elizabeth pulled me tighter against her. “Please, Lorne. Stop thinking about how she’s suffered. It’s not helping you, and it won’t help her to see you lose control. Your skin is starting to glow brighter, and—”
“Goddess take it.” She wasn’t dense or dismissive. She was trying to help me.
I stepped away from her and Rysden. I breathed in and out for a moment, until I felt the pressure of power weaken just enough so that I wasn’t bursting from the seams.
“You can’t let this anger brew inside you.” Elizabeth gripped my arm. “It’ll kill you, and that would kill her. Look at her.” Elizabeth pointed to Amihanna. “She’s here. She’s safe. She’s alive. And by God, she’s thriving. So, she’s okay, and you need to be, too.”
“How are you not mad?” She had to be. She was in that dumpster, too. She’d been in there with her small child, abandoned and alone. She had to be angry.
“I had to learn to live in the present in order to survive. If I dwelled on the things beyond my control, on the anger and anxiety and fear that our situation caused, then it would’ve eaten my soul until there was nothing left, no reason in my heart to stay alive and keep fighting. And I had a daughter. I had no choice but to keep fighting and give her hope so that she could keep living. If I gave in to all those feelings, then what would that mean for her?”
“You love her.”
“Of course I do. She’s my daughter.” She said the words fiercely, as if I’d insulted her, when I didn’t mean anything. Just a statement of fact. “I might not have made the best decisions, but I did everything I could to give us the best shot of surviving. You can be mad at me about them, but we lived. We’re here, and—” Elizabeth stopped speaking, and instead turned to watch Amihanna climb.
“Getting angry now will do no one any good, especially not Amihanna,” she said, softer now. “Not when everyone already expects so much from her. She needs us to be strong for her—to support her—and I can’t do that if I’m angry.” She turned a little to look up at me. “Neither can you.”
I understood that, I really did, but as I watched Amihanna push off from the climbing wall, flipping through the air, I wanted to scream for everything that had been done to her. She’d lost so much. A few weeks ago, she didn’t even remember how to do this exercise. I had to reteach it to her. What more would I learn about her that would send me spiraling into a pool of molten, seething anger?
Elizabeth’s grip on my arm tightened. “You’re the High King, Lorne. You have to breathe.”
Goddess take it all. “I’m trying.” I looked down at her, into the same eyes as Amihanna. Almost. They were the same color, but the shape was different. “You did a good job keeping her alive.”
She dropped my arm and lowered her head. “I’m not so sure about that. I stole her memories from her, and I kept her ignorant of who she was supposed to be. I know you’re angry about that, but it was my choice. Right or wrong, I did what I could to make a horrible situation easier on her. She was suffering and depressed and losing hope. She won’t remember, and I never told her, but she was suicidal. She had given up, and I was desperate. Taking those memories from her… it was awful, but it helped her. She got better after that. She started fighting to live again. I can’t be sorry for that.”
Goddess. Every time I learned something new, it got worse.
I was angry at Elizabeth for it, but I hadn’t known that Amihanna was suicidal. I hadn’t known the depth that she’d been hurting by being apart from me. So, I had some blame in that. I was older. I should’ve fought harder to come back.
And yet, the anger was still there. “I’m trying to not be angry, but I can’t seem to make myself understand. I wasn’t there. I know that means I might never understand. I also know that being alone with such a massive responsibility—to keep her alive so that she could become the leader we need—wasn’t easy on you.” Elizabeth had to have felt so alone, scared, and with the added pressure of trying to keep her daughter fed, safe, sheltered, and alive.
“Nothing about the last thirteen years could ever be called easy.” She laughed softly, but it held undertones of whimper in its depth. “But being a mother is never an easy job. Not when you’re doing it right, not in the best of times, and by God, I tried to do my best even when we were in the worst of it. I tried my best, but—” Her voice was starting to crack, and as if he knew we were quietly talking about something interesting, one of Himani’s cameras came to hover in front of us.
I squeezed Elizabeth’s arm and pointed to the camera.
We had the ability to cut whatever we didn’t want going out for this unexpected portion of the interview, but I didn’t want Elizabeth to expose more of Amihanna’s past. Things had a way of getting out, despite permissions.
“I don’t care who hears what we say,” Elizabeth said after a moment. “But Amihanna does. She’s needed her privacy in order to stay alive, but she’s opening up. She’s healing. And she’ll learn that among the Aunare, she won’t have much that’s private anymore. Not for as long as she wears your ring.”
I watched Amihanna laughing at Eshrin as he struggled to keep pace with her. I knew I should go sit with Himani—and I would make myself do that—but I needed one more minute of watching her without his probing questions. “But will there be enough time for her to live before things get tough again?” I wanted her to have a break. I wanted it before what she’d shown us this morning, and now I was desperate to give it to her.
“Who can say? That is in God’s hands. Or your Goddess’s.” She grew quiet as Amihanna flipped to the ground. “Look at her. She’s been strong enough to get through everything so far, and she’ll continue to be strong. She has no other choice. None of us do.” Elizabeth left, walking toward Roan, and the camera followed her.
I wished I could change that for Amihanna. I wished I could make everything different. I wished for a lot of things, but changing the past wasn’t in my abilities.
“I know why you’re struggling, and I am, too,” Rysden said. “We tried to find her. The Goddess knows we did. We searched for years for any sign of her and came up empty, and yet I still went back four times every year to look. I wandered the streets of Earth’s cities looking for any sign of her and Elizabeth, but it wasn’t fate’s plan for us.”
“It wasn’t enough. We should’ve tried harder. Made more trips. I should’ve gone myself. Maybe her frequency would’ve called to me—”
“And maybe you would’ve been spotted, captured, and killed. Your face is well known, Lorne.”
“As is yours and you took the risk.”
“I was never going to be the High King. I could take the risk.” He took a breath. “We can’t argue over what we did in the past. We have to listen to what Amihanna said. We owe her that much at the very least. We let go of a past that we cannot change, and we forgive our faults and move forward.”
I wasn’t sure I could forgive myself for leaving her on Earth for so long, but I had no choice. We had to move forward. “I want to give her as much time as possible before we declare war. Maybe this timeline will work in our favor. She needs her strength—mentally, physically, and politically.”
“I’ll continue to deal with the allies by myself, and then we’ll ease her into it once she’s ready. The High Council will be hard enough for her for now.”
“As you wish, your majesty.”
“I hate it when you call me that,” I muttered to him.
“It is your title.”
It was, but I didn’t like it from him. “And you are more of my father than the man that held the title for me.”
He sighed beside me. “There will come a time when you can’t shield her anymore.”
“SpaceTech will act and then so will she.”
“You can’t fear what Jesmesha said so much that—”
“I know.” I took a step back from him. My emotions were already running too hot to talk about any of Jesmesha’s predictions without coming completely unhinged. “You aren’t saying anything that I haven’t already told myself.” The worst part was that Amihanna would be angry if she knew what I was shielding from her. I knew it, but I couldn’t stop myself from doing it. I wanted her to have time and freedom to become who she truly would be.
Because today I saw a side of her I’d never seen before. Not just the past—that was awful—but the way she took control of the interview. I didn’t need to see the reports to know that the Aunare would be on her side now.
She had done that. Alone. Without me.
She’d fulfilled her impossible promise to me, one I was sure she couldn’t keep.
She’d only been back for weeks, really, and she was already growing more confident and stronger, and I was completely and utterly humbled by it.
I’d thought I was strong, but I didn’t even know the meaning of the word.
This woman? She was the definition of strength.
And I needed her.
I pulled off my shirt and toed off my shoes. They got in the way, and I’d found that when dealing with Amihanna, they slowed me down. She was already too fast. I wasn’t even giving her the slightest advantage.
“Are you warmed up enough?” I shouted up to her.
She looked down and her hand slipped. She was fifty feet in the air and falling fast.
Goddess take it.
The floor would soften her landing, but it would still hurt. Before I could move, Eshrin was there, catching her.
He said something softly to her and she laughed.
A little bit of burning jealousy pricked me, but I put it out.
I knew Eshrin—her head guard—would be good at his job when I put him in charge of her safety, but I didn’t realize they’d become friends. She needed that level of trust with her unit, especially after Komae betrayed her so badly, and I wanted her to have it. That didn’t mean there wasn’t a sting of jealousy as I watched him place her feet gently on the ground.
Eshrin would keep her safe when I couldn’t.
I had nothing to be jealous of.
Nothing at all.
“Well, that was a spectacular fall,” I said when she turned to me.
“It was your fault!” She jabbed a finger in my direction.
“My fault?” I moved toward her. I hadn’t done anything but stand here watching her. “How does that work?”
“What happened to your clothes?”
She’d fallen because I’d taken off my shirt?
All the stresses from this morning, all the horrors from the video clips we’d watched, all the annoyance from the conversation with Himani melted away as if it’d never existed, and all that was left was my love for her. It filled my soul with so much joy to see her uncomfortable with me right now. I laughed, and there were some chuckles around me. “Amihanna.”
Her skin lit even brighter, and she shook her head. “Stop saying my name like that. And put your shirt back on! There are cameras! You’re nearly naked. It’s not appropriate, and how am I supposed to concentrate?”
“You concentrate just fine with your guards and most of them have their shirts off.”
“It’s different with them.” Because she wasn’t attracted to any of them. She didn’t need to say it. “And they’re not the High King. Don’t you need to be more respectable?”
Amihanna looked like she wanted to hit me, and I couldn’t help but feel thankful for that. Not the hitting part, but that she was here and with me and that I could walk closer to her, hold her, fight next to her.
Because she was here, I did just that. With two quick strides, I closed the distance between us, wrapped my arms around her, and cut off her startled gasp with a kiss.
Her skin lit and I let mine glow with hers, and with that, I had hope.
Hope and love.
Amihanna might have had an impossibly hard thirteen years, but I was going to do everything I could to make sure she was okay from here on.
Elizabeth was right. Focusing on the past wasn’t healthy. Only what we would do today and plan for tomorrow would build our future.
SpaceTech would fear me before this was over. They would pay for what they’d done. I would make sure of it.
And I would keep Amihanna safe.
No matter what. I wouldn’t let her suffer again.
Not as long as I had life left in my body.
Continue the Aunare Chronicles with Book Four, On Mission.
Amihanna di Aetes has finally accepted her place in the Aunare world. In a matter of weeks, she’ll be their High Queen, but no matter how hard she tries, she finds that she’s always doing the wrong thing. At least that’s what the High Council keeps telling her…
There’s only so much rejection a girl can take, which means she’s spending her afternoons trying to get out of High Council meetings. And yet, every time she leaves the council room, she sees the disappointment on her father’s face, and worse, on Lorne’s face. It pains her, but she can’t say what they want her to say.
The council is refusing to see the truth. War isn’t just upon the Aunare – they’re about to lose.
Training her guards to invade Earth is a much better use of her days. She spent too much time hiding, obeying, forcing herself to do what she had to do to survive.
She’s used up all her pretending and can only be who she is. A fighter. A leader. A warrior.
When SpaceTech attacks the Aunare colonies, she’ll do what needs to be done –she’ll fight to defend the Aunare alone if she has to. Because Amihanna is a di Aetes. She’ll never give up. Not until SpaceTech is dismantled and Jason Murtagh is dead.
Amihanna isn’t the queen the Aunare want. But she is the queen the Aunare need.