"Who Are You?"
They meet the girls in the dining hall and they give Cora a look that makes her glance away. Adam doesn’t seem to notice the awkwardness and orders a platter of food for the table. Bread, cheese, and beef stew. Cora’s stomach cramps at the thought.
Milo orders wine and Cora shares the story of the ladies’ undergarments to the girls, who laugh and ease the discomfort about the whole experience. Rain can’t keep quiet about how beautiful everything is.
“It’s one of lesser beautiful inns,” Adam tells her, glancing about to be sure Bertrand isn’t nearby.
“How could that be?” Rain exclaims. “I’d rather work here for nothing than own the entire inn in Hale!”
“You’d be sick of it eventually,” Adam says flatly.
Cora glances at him, wondering at his statement, but then the wine comes. Milo pours some for all of them, and Cora takes a sip, then puckers. It’s much more tart and dry than any other wine she’s had. And so strong.
Milo sighs with satisfaction once she’s downed her goblet. “I’ve missed that,” she comments. “We should see Garnet Manor in the morning.”
Rain’s eyes light up across the table. “Oh, can we?” she asks Adam, who is next to Cora at the round table.
“You ladies don’t need my permission to go anywhere,” he laughs.
“I don’t know if I can wait until tomorrow morning,” Rain says excitedly, then she looks at Cora. “Did you know that Garnet Manor is supposed to hold all kinds of secrets?”
“That’s what I’ve heard,” Cora replies, remembering vaguely the trip with Alexis where she babbled on about Bannerford.
“It’s settled then,” Milo says as she runs her fingertip along the rim of her goblet. “Right Adam?”
He pauses, eyeing her, then answers with, “Like I said, you don’t need my permission to go anywhere.”
“But you’ll be coming, of course,” Cora says quickly.
“I was planning something else for the two of us,” Adam replies. “I’d really love to show you the Clades Waterfall just outside the city, if you’re interested. We can visit the Manor on our way back.”
“That sounds wonderful,” Cora agrees.
“What if Coraleth wants to come with us?” Milo cuts in.
They all turn to look at her.
“Is there something wrong, Milo?” Adam asks her sharply.
Milo, not one to cower even in the hard stare of her brother, faces him with determination.
“Can we talk somewhere private?” Milo directs to Adam.
“It’d be rude to leave the table,” Adam says. “Even more rude than what you’re doing right now.”
“Well I want to talk.” Milo stands, then walks over and stands next to him.
“Sit down, sister,” Adam says. “You’re ruining the pleasant evening we were all having.”
Milo doesn’t speak. She just stands there, staring down at him. Finally, with an irritable sigh, Adam rises, apologizes to Rain and Cora, and follows Milo out of the room.
After a long silence, Rain pipes up: “What was that all about?”
“I don’t know.” Cora watches the door through which they disappeared, saddened and angered at the same time. What right does Milo have to intrude? She’s not Adam’s mother. She isn’t even related, really. Cora takes a long drink of the strange wine just as the food is brought to the table.
“Where are the other two?” Bertrand asks as he lays down bowls of bread filled with stew.
“Having a family altercation,” Rain replies, tearing a bit of bread from the rim of her bowl and dipping into the soup.
Cora, having lost her appetite, rises. “I’m going to see what I can do,” she tells Rain.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Rain warns, mouth half full. “Getting between the Spruce siblings can be a very dangerous thing.”
“I don’t care. I’ll be back.”
Cora leaves the room and heads in the direction Milo and Adam went. They left through the main hallway toward their bedrooms, but the hallway is empty. Cora’s ears prick at the sound of voices, so she moves to the door of Milo and Rain’s room and presses her ear against it lightly.
Adam is in the middle of a sentence, “--shouldn’t have come in the first place!”
“Why not? So you could parade her around your city like some prize you’d won? Finally, the great Adam Spruce has found someone who’ll stay with him for longer than a night!”
“Oh, sweet pious Milo,” Adam drawls derisively. “Rescuer of lost children and helper of Hale. Father only ever saw you as a strong woman, capable of anything. Available and caring and hard-working. He never knew of your dealings with the tradesmen—”
Milo’s harsh laugh cuts him off. “You condemn me for selling my own items to wanderers for a good price? You?!” She laughs again, without humour.
“We both know that’s not what really happened.”
“As a perfect man then, please tell me what your plan is here. Get together with your cohorts? Plan more destruction to get away from?”
“No. None of that matters anymore. This is my time with Coraleth, and I want it to be special.”
“Why in Herus’ name would you take her to Bannerford then?” Milo shouts, and Adam hushes her. Her voice drops then. “What happens when she finds out what you really are?”
“She won’t. She never has to know.”
Milo swears sharply then, her voice lowering to a fierce whisper, hardly audible through the door. “Are you so fantastically confident in your own abilities that you...”
Cora shuts her eyes, trying to make out Milo’s words. She hears a lot of whispered jumble, then the chilling last phrase: “took your first life?”
Cora steps away from the door, the wood grain warping in her vision as blood pounds through her head.
Faintly, she hears Adam say, “Yes. Evil isn’t a destiny; it’s a choice. And I don’t choose it. I don’t understand. You were fine during the trip. Why are you so worked up now?”
“Oh it was boiling under the surface ever since she mentioned this trip. I can’t believe you even allowed it. Are you so stupid?”
“I want her to have what she wants,” Adam replies, and Cora instinctively steps closer to the door.
“You know, she will find out. I won’t tell her, but something will happen, and she’ll see you for who you really are. I’m sure of it.”
A pause, then Milo’s voice: “You know, you’re right. Evil is a choice. In this case, it chose you.”
Incoming footsteps causes Cora to turn and bolt for the hallway door. She’s out and back in her seat at the table before they knew she was even there.
“Did you resolve anything?” Rain asks.
“I’m afraid I only further confused things,” Cora says. “But no more on the matter. Let’s pretend nothing happened and go on with dinner. We don’t want them to feel awkward.”
“All right,” Rain agrees. “Are you not going to eat?”
Mind rolling and stomach churning, Cora pushes away the bread bowl.
“No. I’ve lost my appetite. Do you want some?”
“Please,” Rain says, taking the bread from her.
Milo and Adam return and Cora struggles to look at them innocently, face blank of any expression that would give her away.
“How’s the stew?” Adam wonders.
Thinking it’d be obvious of her discomfort if she didn’t eat, Cora says, “It was delicious,” pretending that she was the one who’d finished hers first, and Rain was just beginning. After she says this, she can feel Rain’s eyes on her in question, but she determines not to lose eye contact with Adam.
She searches those earth-brown eyes and silently asks them what they’ve seen. Have they just seen smith anvils? Forests? Dead animals at the end of arrows? Or have they seen other bodies, dead at Adam’s hand?
Why didn’t you tell me? Why won’t you tell me? What’s going on? Who are you?
Are you a murderer?
That night, as the pairs split at their doors, Cora waves goodnight to a slightly tipsy Rain and quite solemn Milo, who seems very coherent though she had more wine than anyone else. Then her and Adam enter their room.
“That was delicious,” Adam says, his hand on his stomach. He collapses into bed with a long sigh, acting as carefree as ever.
Cora lights the candle on her bedside, then sits carefully on the side of her bed, facing Adam. “Yes, it was,” she says, though all she had was wine. Her mind is a little fuzzy, but she enjoys the sensation now. It saves her from the mind-rolling confusion. Ironically, the wine seems to have made her mind clearer.
Adam turns his head to look at her. “Is something bothering you? You were very quiet during dinner.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“Is something wrong?”
Cora can’t believe it. She’s actually snapping at him.
Adam rises and sits across from her, on his own bed. “Coraleth,” he says slowly, in a way that tells her how obvious it is that something is wrong.
Cora drops her eyes. “Why was Milo so upset?”
A second of silence, then, “She doesn’t think it’s appropriate that we sleep in the same room. After last night and everything...”
Cora tightens her fingers in her lap. More lies...
“Was that all?”
Another long silence.
“What else would there be?” Adam asks her. When Cora doesn’t respond, he stands and kneels in front of her, taking her hands in his. “Coraleth, please,” he says gently, and she finally makes eye contact. Her anger melts despite herself. She can’t help her reaction to his closeness. “I don’t want you to be upset. This is supposed to be a good trip for you. I hate that Milo soured it by reacting the way she did.”
“She didn’t sour it,” Cora tells him softly. “I just want us all to get along.”
“We will. Milo and I bicker like any pair of siblings. Don’t concern yourself with it.”
Before Cora can reply, Adam stretches upward and lays his lips over hers. No more anger. No more anything. All Cora can feel is him. She drowns in his arms, in his overwhelming warmth. She loses herself in the tender stroke of his fingers on her face, through her hair, which he pulls from the braid she loosely tied it in this morning. She pulls away only long enough to gasp a breath. When she does, he nudges her back on the bed so he can sit next to her on his knees.
Then he’s kissing her again, holding the curve between her neck and shoulder, fingertips slipping beneath the line of her dress, thumb in line with her throat. Cora can feel her own racing heartbeat thud against his thumb. She indulges in all the things she’d fantasized about for what felt like years—running her hands into his hair, hugging him closer until his chest presses against hers. Her toes curl up when he runs one hand down her side, then lifts her even tighter into his arms.
After a long moment, he’s the one to pull away, panting.
“I am utterly in love with you,” he whispers hoarsely.
She pulls his head toward her and hisses into his ear: “Then prove it.”
And the rest of the night is a blur.