A treat… a spoilery treat, so read at your own risk! This chapter I liked, but ultimately cut it from The Living God. It was a good hint into the complex relationship between Saran, Keleir, and Rowe, but ultimately had to go in order to tighten up the pacing.
Cut – Chapter Twenty-Three
Veck’s Tavern sat meshed between two old stone buildings at the far end of town, near the outer stone wall that separated the capital city from the abandoned fields beyond. The city, now down to a quarter of its population, remained quiet even in the late-night hours when a majority of soldiers were off duty and allowed to take pleasure in drinks and women.
Saran did her best to blend in with the servant girls who fled the castle at night to enjoy merriment with the soldiers at Veck’s. Even in common garb and a hood, she stuck out under the glint of torchlight when her hair showed as bright as hot coals. The guards they passed knew exactly who she was and, despite that, sneaking out of the castle proved easier than Rowe originally thought. The guards seemed to favor Saran and, even though they knew she wasn’t allowed to leave the palace, they did nothing to stop her. Rowe suspected that if Saran chose to run away that very night, no one would prevent her from doing so.
Well-known for her kindness to her men, the Princess of Adrid had saved many of their lives on the battlefield with her ability to reverse time around their wounds. It would be hard to find a single soldier in the city who thought ill of her—except, perhaps, Odan.
He had his reasons, most fueled by jealousy and resentment.
Heat from Veck’s fiery hearth greeted them and its golden light filled the room. Despite the city’s sparse population, Veck’s was bustling, with just enough room at a small table near the fire, where no one dared sit because of the heat. As it was the only space available, Rowe and Saran took it.
Bartal Veck, the old retired general who ran the tavern, approached the table with a wide grin across his round, bearded face. “Ain’t seen you two in here in a while,” he said and turned his attention to Saran, who kept the hood drawn over her head. “Congrats, Princess. I heard you got married. Quiet little ceremony? Will you have a public one?”
Saran smiled. “Perhaps. I’m not sure. It depends greatly, I suppose, on what Father decides for me.
Veck laughed. “Never took you as the sort to do what Daddy says.”
The princess’s smile tightened. “Times change, Veck. Situations grow more difficult. Sometimes we have to do what we hate in order to do what is right.”
“Aye,” he said, clocking his pegged leg against the wooden floor. “I know it.”
“We’ll take three rounds of your best whiskey,” Rowe said, leaning casually back into the stiff wooden chair. “On second thought, make it four.”
“Will Keleir be joining you?” Veck asked, arching an eyebrow at the Lightning Mage. “Hah, guess I should say Prince now.”
Saran laughed. “He very well might roast you for that. He isn’t fond of the title.”
“It’s true,” Rowe added, laughing. “He scalded my hand for saying it. But, he won’t be joining us. He’s away tidying up a mess that our king made with the Mavahans.”
Veck winced. “Poor fellow. All right, four rounds coming up. But I’m not carrying you back to your beds. You’re grown now.”
The tavern tender was quick about his work, and within minutes, there were eight individual glasses of whiskey, four before Saran and four before Rowe. The first was gone the second it hit the table. Saran felt the liquid burn all the way down, giving a pleasant sigh when it hit her belly.
Rowe was quiet, choosing to sip the second glass. He watched her with eagle eyes, admiring the weary and lonesome look she wore. Trouble was a storm in her green eyes. “How did it go with Roshaud?”
“I stabbed him with a fork,” Saran replied, smiling behind her glass. “I believe our relationship with the Third will be strained in the future.” She drank. “Did your reading go well?”
Rowe set his glass down, running his fingers over the top. “I was looking for a way to break the Bind without the key. In all that vast array of books, I haven’t found a spell that will do it. It seems our two choices are to cut off your hand or find the key.”
Saran thought about the hatchet in her room. She squeezed her healing hand, knowing its strength could probably accomplish the task now. “I like my hand,” Saran murmured, twisting the bracelet around her wrist. “I’d like to keep it.”
“I’d like for you to keep it as well.”
They were quiet then, listening to the chatter around them and the crackle of the hot fire. Saran drank more liberally than Rowe. Rowe sipped at his as if he had all night to sit and talk with her, while she felt the passing of time like running toward a cliff. Eventually, she’d run out of ground, and she’d plunge headlong into the unknown. Her magic felt like a guide, a thin string to follow in the dead of night, and without it . . .
“I’m sorry,” she said, taking a long gulp of whiskey. “For the fight in my room, for pressing you. Maybe it is my confinement. I don’t feel myself without my Element.”
Rowe met her eyes, silent and unresponsive to her apology. Eventually, after appraisement, he rested his half-empty second glass on the wood tabletop and muttered, “Remember after the battle at Otar, we came here and got horribly drunk. Just the three of us? We drank until we couldn’t see the faces of those who were killed. We piled up in the corner, over there”—he pointed to the dark round booth with the plush seats—“huddled atop one another. You said you loved me.”
Saran swallowed, setting down the small glass and letting her green eyes settle on him. “I told you both that I loved you.”
Rowe grinned. “Aye, you loved us both, and we laughed. We laughed and then talked of leaving. Of going into hiding, far away, the three of us, and we would love you together. Do you ever think about that?”
Did she ever? Always. It’s the only thing she’d ever truly wanted in her sad, twisted life.
Saran averted her gaze from him, shifting uncomfortably in her seat. “We are leaving. We just won’t have the life those drunkards conjured up,” she said, taking up the last glass of whiskey in her possession and finishing it in one long gulp. Her head felt fuzzy with drink, her tongue lax from judgment.
Rowe stared past her and into the fire. “We could have that life still.”
The princess cocked her head at him. “What is—”
“You were right,” he muttered, running a hand over his head. “I am selfish and jealous. I am not a good man, Saran. I’ve never been. I seek redemption by digging one hole to fill another. I’ll never stop digging if I don’t stop now.”
“Rowe . . .”
“Let’s go to the Third,” he whispered, lifting his gaze from the fire. Electric emotion coiled in his eyes. “When Keleir returns, let’s go to the Third. We can use the Gate Maker in the dungeons. It will let you pass with that Bind on your arm, and we won’t need a key to remove it. I was selfish to think that I could have both redemption and my brother, but if I must choose, I will choose him.”
Saran’s eyes burned and her throat tightened.
Rowe continued. “I told you once that I didn’t love you. I told you to choose my brother. But I do love you, Saran. I love my brother, too. I won’t let the people I love suffer for my pride. Let’s go to the Third. Let’s live peacefully in the ashes of their dead world.”
Saran peered at him through blurred vision. She did not have the heart to remind him that by marrying his brother she had been Bound to Keleir. Nor did she possess the courage to remind him that he had pushed her away and that the feelings she might have shared for him once had dampened into a fond memory. The love in his eyes made her heart flutter fearfully, but the hope in his words gave her voice strength. “If he returns, we will go to the Third,” she agreed. No magic could Bind her there and if Keleir returned with control over his own form after being in the Deadlands of Mavahan, then he could exist on the Third. She didn’t have to worry about losing him to the Oruke.
“If he doesn’t return?” Rowe asked.
There it was, that lingering fear thick in the air, spoken aloud and unwilling to be denied, that Keleir Ahriman would never return to Adrid… not himself anyway.