Recovery and Discovery
Back at the inn, Coraleth and Adam lie still in one bed, wrapped in each others’ arms. After some rest, Cora’s head has stopped pounding and her emotions are less frayed. Finally, she asks the question that’s been bothering her.
“Why was your skin so hot?”
He turns his face to her, his eyes trailing from hers to the marks around her mouth. Thankfully, they hadn’t blistered. As lightly as ever, he traces the line of her jaw. His fingertips are cool, a welcome change from the warmth on Cora’s face.
“I have a condition,” he tells her slowly, “where, depending on my mood, the temperature of my skin will change.”
“What?” Cora exclaims. “Why haven’t you told me this before?”
“It isn’t an issue unless I’m very angry.”
“What kind of condition is that? I’ve never heard of it before.”
“I’m not sure exactly. Being born to parents I never met made it hard to distinguish who I was or why. I first learned of this when I was nine years old and furious at Father for something I don’t remember now. I grabbed an iron rod and watched it turn red in my hand, but I didn’t feel the heat of it. Father never found out about it though.”
“That’s interesting,” Cora muses. “And you’re sure there’s nothing...wrong with you?”
Adam laughs, but it has no humour in it. “Like what? I’ve been like this ever since I can remember. One of my first memories in Hale is when I froze a glass of water in my hand.”
“What emotion caused that?”
“Sadness. Milo’s mother, my mother, had just disappeared.”
Cora’s eyes drop at the thought of how sad he must have been. “She died?”
“No. We all woke up and she was gone. None of us have any idea where she went. But she never came back.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Cora says softly.
“Thank you.” There’s a short pause, then Adam says, “You know, there was another time I almost felt cold enough to freeze water.”
“When was that?”
“When you announced to the room that Lucas was the man you were going to marry.”
“Really?” Cora breathes.
“Yes. But when we met in the forest and had our disagreement, I felt hot enough to burn him. He hit my shoulder and I had to really control myself so I wouldn’t hit him back. I might have burnt his face off if I did.”
Cora laughs uneasily, unsure of how she feels sitting so close to him now. Adam notices her hesitation, and the way she pulls away ever so slightly when he touches her arm. His hand goes cold immediately and he glances at her, understanding.
“You’re afraid of me,” he states plainly.
“No,” Cora blurts, trying to swallow. “I’m not afraid. I just...it’s just something I have to get used to.”
He leans back on the pillow and looks up at the ceiling. The distance between them suddenly feels eternal.
“I feel like a monster,” he says quietly, his voice cracking and hollow.
“You’re not!” Cora exclaims, and sits up. “You understand my hesitation, right? We were supposed to be honest with each other, remember?”
He sighs, nodding. “Yes. I’m glad you are.”
A very long and heavy silence falls over them. Then a knock at the door breaks it. Cora glances at Adam, wondering if he will answer, but he doesn’t move, as if he didn’t even hear the knock. Cora then rises and goes for the door.
A strange man is there, dressed in fine clothes and bearing a roll of parchment. He smiles slightly and hands the parchment to Cora.
“I’ve been sent by Master Cordax to deliver this to you.”
After those words have been uttered, the man tips his head and walks away. Cora stands there a moment longer, a little stunned, then softly closes the door.
Adam is sitting up. “What does it say?”
Cora takes a seat on the opposite bed and unrolls the parchment.
“It says, ‘Coraleth and Adam, I humbly request your company at dinner this evening, an hour after sunset, in the Grand Dining Hall of Garnet Manor. Dress attire is preferably formal. If this time is not convenient, please send word with my courier, who will remain outside the Marsh to take you by carriage to the Manor, if you so desire. Let me know what other time you’d be available. I look forward to seeing you both. Most sincerely, Master Vladimir Cordax.’” Cora runs her fingertip against the fine parchment. “It bears his seal,” she whispers in amazement.
There’s a long stillness in the room. Finally, Cora says, “I have no formal attire.”
“Neither do I.”
Adam shrugs. “Well, I suppose we’re having dinner with Master Cordax.”
“But why? How does he even know who we are? Why does he want to see us?”
“I don’t know. I mean, we know each other a little. I was born here, and I come here often, so we’ve met. But I don’t know why he wants us there for dinner.” He pauses, then stands. “We’d better find some fancier clothing.”
Cora stands with him. “Do you have money for that?”
He waves a hand. “Don’t concern yourself with that. I know a place with good prices for good quality clothing. Let’s go.”
It isn’t long before Adam and Cora are back in the little inn room, dressing for dinner. Neither of them felt much like staying out in the street, especially when dusk was fast approaching. Everything about the darkening alleys made them want to leave the streets as soon as possible.
Cora smooths the dark green fabric of her dress over her waist. She wonders if Adam made the right choice with this dress. Isn’t the neckline too high? Don’t the sleeves come down a little too far? Is the rich colour right for her skin?
Adam appears behind her in the looking glass, absolutely stunning in his beige shirt paired with a vest matching the colour of Cora’s dress. The colour looks divine on him. It enhances the deep tones of his skin and somehow brightens his dark eyes. He touches Cora’s shoulder lightly and pulls aside the waves of her auburn hair to kiss the spot behind her ear. Shivers run up and down Cora’s spine.
Then he takes a tendril of her hair in his hand and says, “Braid your hair tonight.”
She turns to him. “But you like it loose,” she counters, puzzled.
“Yes, I do, but I don’t want Master Cordax, or anyone else for that matter, liking it as much as I do.”
Cora kisses him and sits down to braid her hair.
“Do you think it rude for us to go without telling Milo or Rain?” Cora wonders aloud, twisting the coils of her hair tightly.
“They have their own lives. Besides, if Master Cordax wanted them there, they’d have extended an invitation to them as well.”
“I just can’t believe it. Invited to Garnet Manor. I’m not sure whether to feel nervous or excited.”
“I’m a little nervous,” Adam admits. “Master Cordax is famed to be the most attractive man in all of Tempesco.”
Cora laughs. “Should I be worried?”
Adam’s tension breaks with his hearty laugh. As it dies down, he says, suddenly serious, “No, but I am.”
Cora finishes the braid with a tie and stands to wrap her arms around Adam’s neck.
“You never need to worry about my loyalty to you. Not ever,” she tells him with a smile.
But he isn’t smiling anymore. “Everything has a limit, Coraleth,” he says. “An exception. A special situation that would change everything.”
Cora lowers her brows, not understanding what he means. “Nothing could make me stop loving you,” she says with conviction. “Even if all of Aranea broke apart and our souls drifted away from each other forever, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself. If something awful happened and I could never see you again, I would always love you. Not even death could change that. Certainly no pretty face could change it.”
He takes her then and kisses her slowly. There’s a pain surrounding him that Cora doesn’t understand, but it’s strong enough for her to feel too. His skin is icy cold, but also bears a kind of sting, like mild acid.
“What’s going on?” she asks once he’s pulled his lips from hers.
“I would die without you, Coraleth,” he says against her mouth. “Don’t abandon me.”
“Never,” Cora promises. “Not as long as I breathe.”
He kisses her again. Something is wrong. This isn’t the kind of passion that makes her skin tingle with excitement and her body react fiercely. This is a kind that she doesn’t recognize. In the desperate way he clings to her, in the shivering breaths he takes, in his repeated plea, “Don’t abandon me,” there is an agony in him. One she’d never expect from him. One that sets her every bone out of joint.
Then, suddenly, his words change. Suddenly, he’s saying, “Marry me.”
When the words register in Cora’s brain, she gasps and stares at him.
“What?” she whispers.
His eyes find hers. For a long moment, he just looks at her. His eyes bore holes into hers as his request grows in magnitude.
“Marry me. Coraleth Mae Albrynn, marry me.”
And then, Cora is brought back to what feels like decades ago, when she was standing before her childhood best friend, receiving the same request. Only—and she can’t help but compare them—this elicits completely contrasting emotions from that experience. Then, she felt shock, confusion, and dread. Now, she is surprised, yes, but also elated. And not confused. Instead, her choice is clear to her.
“There isn’t anything I’d rather do,” she replies.
Instead of kissing her again, like she wants him to, Adam releases her. He moves away, to the other side of the room. Then he’s rooting around in their supplies.
“What are you looking for?” Cora asks, almost laughing in her excitement.
He takes something out and cups it in his hand. Then he pulls her to sit next to him on the bed. He smiles at her, an unsteady smile, and grips her hand tightly.
“I bought this the day I first met you, from a woman selling her jewellery in Hale.”
Before she has a chance to process the words, Adam has opened his hand. And there, lying in his palm, is Mother’s ring.