When Coraleth opens her eyes, his face is the first thing she sees. Beautiful, is the first thing she thinks.
She’s lying on her side, pressed against him, who is also on his side. His arms are around her, one acting as her pillow. Wrapped up in each other. That’s how they slept through the storm.
Nothing more than kissing happened last night, but it was more than perfect all the same. Cora feels as if she’s living in a dream, like none of this could actually be true. She couldn’t have kissed Adam all she wanted. She couldn’t have fallen asleep in his arms.
But I did...
How could life get any better?
Adam wakes a few moments later, inhaling deeply. Cora nuzzles closer to him and presses her temple against his damp chest. He strokes her hair lightly.
“Good morning,” he says, his voice still husky with sleep. The sound of it makes Cora quiver.
“Good morning,” she croaks, and curses the grogginess in her own voice.
“And good morning to you two,” Milo calls.
Cora sits up hastily and sees Milo standing by the wagon. Her and Rain stand with their arms crossed, facing Adam and Cora like parents catching their children pouring salt over the dog. Adam stands stiffly, tugging Cora up with him.
“We just fell asleep,” he explains quickly. “Nothing happened.”
Cora presses her lips together to suppress a smile at Adam’s pink cheeks. She’s never made a man blush before.
“And last night? In the rain? You were just hugging to keep warm right? And your lips definitely weren’t touching, right?” Rain questions them.
Cora has the urge to kiss him again right now, but just walks to the wagon to organize their supplies for the day’s journey.
“You can’t ignore us forever, Coraleth Mae Albrynn,” Milo teases.
Cora can feel her own cheeks getting warm at the usage of her full name, so like Adam. Then she feels arms embrace her from behind and she freezes.
“No, I guess we can’t,” Adam says into her ear. Cora melts into his arms. Twisting around, she smiles up at him and declares,
“I suppose we’ll just have to tell them.”
“Or how about we just show them? Just so there’s no question about it,” Adam suggests.
Cora laughs shakily and leans forward to meet his kiss. He pulls her in and she can feel a smile on his lips. Delightful shivers race down her spine.
Milo finally shouts, “All right, that’s enough. We understand.”
“Lovely,” Adam says to her, releasing Cora slowly.
“And don’t be staring longingly into each other’s eyes on the trip or I might vomit,” Milo adds, and shoves Adam as he walks by.
“No promises,” he says, and winks at Cora.
However, by the time Bannerford’s huge walls appear on the horizon, both Milo and Rain are eager for the trip to be over. It’s easy to tell from the amount of times they moan, “Are we nearly there?” and “All right, will I have to sit between you two again?”
It’s nearly dusk, and the caravan pulls into the vicinity of Bannerford. Cora stares up at the great walls with wide eyes. The mountains alone were stunning, but she’d seen those before. High walls like these, set in sections with torches already lit for the night, are new to her.
“You were born here?” she whispers to Adam.
He nods, glancing at Rain to be sure she didn’t hear. Guards at the door halt their wagon. Then they recognize Adam.
“Back again, are you, Spruce?” one guard asks.
Adam says, “I sure am.”
“How long this time?”
Adam hesitates, then, with a rather obvious gesture to the women in the wagon, says, “Just visiting. Maybe a few days. Maybe a week or two.”
The guards nod slowly as if they don’t believe him, but they open the gate.
Cora looks back at them as they ride along through. “What was that about?” she asks Adam.
“I come here often,” is all he tells her.
The city blossoms before them, great mighty walls that enclose the most brilliant houses and cottages Cora has ever seen. Their walls are not rough wooden logs like the ones in Atherton or Hale, but sturdy, sable blocks that looked wet but weren’t to the touch. Edges of the buildings were reinforced with carved stone, and patterns were woven into the tender willow decorations that lined the roofs. In the dimming light, lanterns around the city begin to glow, brightening the cobbled pathway.
The party moves slowly through the town, half because of the traffic in the road and half because it takes time to absorb the grand beauty of Bannerford. Cora feels as if she’s stepped into another world, where simple things like wagon wheels can be carved with swirls and buildings themselves can be beautiful.
“This place is incredible,” Cora whispers.
“You haven’t even seen Garnet Manor yet,” Milo tells her.
“Will we go there in the morning?” Rain asks Adam.
“We can go wherever you women want,” Adam replies. “We should explore the Brier Marsh Mountains above as well, just outside of town. From there you can see the most breathtaking sights, like the Clades Waterfall, the largest waterfall in all Tempesco, in all Aranea too, if you don’t count Majesty Falls in Imbrium.”
“You know so much,” Cora muses, staring at him in admiration.
He smirks. “I try.”
Milo rolls her eyes. “So where will we be staying?”
At that moment Adam turns the wagon, and they continue down a side street. The cobblestones are so much smoother than those in Atherton or Hale. Adam veers the wagon into the nook of a small stable, next to a tall building that glistens with torchlight.
“‘The Marsh,’” Rain reads off a painted sign. “What an awful name.”
“It’s the less expensive alternative to ‘The Brier,’” Adam tells us, “which is on the richer side of Bannerford.”
“It all looks rich to me,” says Cora, staring up at the buildings towering over her.
Adam casts her a little smirk, then shifts and slides off the wagon. The others follow in slow succession. Cora’s stomach rolls with hunger; the bread and cheese Rain had packed did not suffice.
A bony woman crashes into Cora from the side as she descends the wagon, quickly and breathlessly puffing out, “Apologies,” as she continues along the torchlit street.
Adam curls an arm around Cora’s shoulder and pulls her toward the inn. “People in the city aren’t as courteous as they are in Atherton,” he explains shortly.
“I noticed,” Cora replies, looking after the woman. She has to admit—a bit of her newly formed high opinions of Bannerford have diminished.
The inside of the inn is cozy, made of wood and pewter, like any old inn. But this one also has a kind of sharpness to it. None of the benches are chipped or sagging, none of the counters are cracked, and the man behind the bar looks far too clean to be running the place. Everything is evenly proportioned and rather elaborately decorated, lit warmly with torches and a fire blazing happily in the hearth. If this is the more inexpensive choice between inns, Cora wonders what the more expensive one would look like.
Adam deals with ordering the rooms while the ladies stand by the door. Rain seems to be taking everything in just as enthusiastically as Coraleth. Milo, on the other hand, is watching Adam closely, her dark, hawklike eyes squinted. Cora tries to guess what she’s thinking while Rain talks on about how beautiful this inn is compared to the one in Hale.
Is she wondering if he’ll stay longer? Maybe forever? Surely, since she knows we are together, she knows he can’t just abandon me. He can’t. He wouldn’t.
Adam finally turns back to them and offers to take one of the bags upstairs. Milo shrugs the offer and lifts her own bag, Rain didn’t hear him so he had to repeat himself, and Cora accepts the offer, still wondering at Milo’s sudden change of attitude.
Adam instructs them to follow him up to the double doors across the dining hall. Through those doors stood a long, wide hallway with doors running up either side. Adam, hauling bags of supplies, stops at the third down from the left and stops to unlock it.
“The innkeeper gave you the key?” Milo asks.
Adam smirks. “This is like a second home to me, Milo,” he says.
Inside, the first sight is a painting on the far wall of a dark forest near a lake with water so dark it looked black. Beneath the artwork were the words “Blackmist Pond, Ardellon.” The travellers also notice two small beds up against the right wall, with a single end table between them.
“We won’t all fit on those,” Rain comments.
“These are yours and Milo’s beds,” Adam tells her.
“Where will you two sleep?” Milo wonders.
Cora blushes hotly. He got us our own room? A sinking dread overwhelms her. No matter how much she inwardly wants to spend alone time with Adam, the thought is terrifying, and the look from the girls embarrasses her.
“The inn only has rooms with two beds or rooms with one large bed. We’ll have to have separate rooms,” Adam explains, not looking at Cora.
“But will you have separate beds?” Milo mutters, almost as if to herself, but loud enough for them all to hear.
“Of course we will,” Adam says. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
Cora’s heartbeat slows a tad. At least they do have their own beds. It’d be too much to be completely isolated and also sleeping on the same mattress, beneath the same blanket. Strangely, that concept seemed fine last night, but now it has stronger implications.
“Well I suppose we can start unloading a little,” Milo says, dismissing the previous conversation. She begins organizing the bags, handing Cora’s to her. “These are yours.”
“Thanks,” Cora says awkwardly.
“Our room is right next door,” Adam informs her, obviously trying to ease her discomfort.
He partially unloads his supplies and takes just their own, then leads her out of the room to the hallway. He takes only a moment to unlock the door, then steps aside for Coraleth to walk in first.
Cora steps inside and hears the door click closed behind her. The painting on the wall in here is of a sea of rolling hills, dark blue like sapphires, accented with lilacs and mist. And standing in the middle of the right wall is a single, huge bed.
Cora’s mouth goes dry. “Um, Adam...”
His voice behind her, the only sound in the room, sends electric waves up her spine and through her muscles. Cora’s eyes focus on the most luxurious set of ladies’ undergarments she’s ever seen, draped over the side of the bed. Her face burns hotter than it ever had before.
“Y-You made a mistake. I don’t...I mean...I’m not—”
“Oh!” He stands next to her facing the bed. “Oh I must have opened up the wrong door. I told Bertrand that giving me the keys would someday end me in someone else’s room. Quickly, out! Before anyone sees us!”
They shuffle into the hallway and Cora notices with a flood of relief that Adam is as pink-cheeked as she must be.
“Apologies,” he says in the hallway. “I can’t believe that just happened.”
“It’s all right,” Cora breathes.
Adam moves to the door on the opposite side of Rain and Milo’s room and unlocks it, then he peers inside and sighs. “This is the right one. Come in. There’s no underwear in here.”
Cora laughs a little and enters the room. Thankfully, there are two beds, far separated. Cora doesn’t even notice the painting until she’s inside and putting her things into the drawers. It depicts a massive, sprawling city of sand-coloured buildings, the golden sun glittering on the rooftops. Smudged into the shadows are shades of deep red and auburn, further elevating the “burning” sensation the painting gives. Cora herself feels warm just looking at it.
“I’m sorry again for earlier,” Adam says, after a long moment of silence while they were arranging their belongings. “I didn’t mean to walk into that room.”
“I’m just thankful we didn’t run into anyone,” Cora says, then forces a little laugh.
“I want you to be comfortable,” Adam tells her carefully.
Cora looks up at him. “I am.”
He stops packing a drawer and walks slowly toward her. “And any time you feel uncomfortable, I want you to tell me.”
Cora swallows dryly. “I will.”
When he’s close enough, he brushes the back of his knuckles against her cheek toward her ear. Cora’s breathing quickens. He places a light kiss against her cheek, right on the corner of her lips, then pulls back and smiles at her.
“We should meet the ladies for some dinner,” he says.
Cora just nods, almost dizzy. Suddenly, the idea of one bed seems rather wonderful. But when he walks toward the door again, she reminds herself of the girls. If they weren’t here, she’d be more comfortable about spending the night with him. Yes, last night they slept very closely, but it seemed to be less intimate than the closeness of shared bedding and body heat. And besides, it wasn’t exactly planned. If they’d had one bed for tonight, Milo and Rain would know from the moment they separated after dinner that Cora and Adam would be sleeping under the same blanket. It unsettles Cora just to think of what they’d say behind their own room door. And it felt so strange to be with Milo’s brother in the first place, even if he was adopted.