3. Kin

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I kept my hair plaited, though Valalya had removed the flowers before sleep. Now, I wore the riding clothes my mother had long outgrown after two children. The shirt fit me snuggly across the chest, and it was difficult to twine my long plait into a knot small enough to tuck into the riding helmet. At last, however, I was ready to depart by the first rays of the morning light.

My trip to Xzaryth's Tower was uneventful and eerily silent. Most of the palace was still asleep after the night of revelry. Even the servants were taking an extra half hour to rest. Which meant my soft, careful footsteps over the dusky stone sounded loud and clumsy the entire way to the Black Gryphon's tower. Yet, it also made me immediately aware when another set of footsteps scuffed over the stone ahead of me.

As I reached the trap door that led up into the tower, I was not surprised to find the Rider from last night. He was attired in his riding garb, as I was, but there was enough visible of his face for me to feel a little shock. For the first time in my life, I was looking at someone who looked like me, and wasn't my mother.

Both of our noses were straight, but lacking the distinct hook of many desert peoples. Our cheekbones were higher, though our lips bore a similar thickness to the people of Valhoal. Yet, it was in the color of our skin that caused me to see the similarities more clearly. While all of us could be considered brown-skinned, there was a subtle difference between the color this man and I bore and the shade of the Queen's desert tint. Her skin seemed to radiate a gentle golden glow. This Rider and I each bore a hint of red, giving our skin a copper appearance.

It should not have made such a strong impression, but it did. Looking at him was a bitter reminder that I was not born of the desert as I had always wished I was. Instead, he confirmed everything that my mother had always told me: we were kin. And I had to prove my kinship to him.

"You are Cardan, Rider of Kiethe," I said as I approached.

His eyebrows rose as he looked over me. "I am. And you are?"

My mother had told me to expect this, so I had to make it clear right away. "I am Tallie, daughter of Sarrie, Rider of Xzaryth, and Raydin, Rider of Maphail."

Though he must have been three years my senior, he looked much younger when his jaw fell open. I waited until the surprise passed and he cleared the ridiculous expression from his face. When his eyes narrowed in suspicion, I smiled.

"No, my father would not have mentioned me. Nor would my brother. Neither of them are aware I exist. Shall we remedy that ignorance?"

Without waiting for an answer, I made my way up the ladder and pushed up on the trap door. As was usual, the tower was heavy with the musk of lion and the pungent scent of decaying flesh. Xzaryth had always loved having a place to bring his kills back to so that he could pick the bones at his leisure. Unfortunately it made the place smell like a refuse pit in the midst of the rainy season, and a mass grave in the height of the dry. This was the dry season.

"Ugh! And you wonder why I refuse to visit you in your tower," I admonished as I pulled the collar of my tunic up to cover my nose.

From his perch above my head, the Black Gryphon made a clicking noise with his beak. Which quickly turned into a hiss as Cardan followed me into the tower. Above him, on a smaller shelf, Kiethe hissed back in juvenile agitation. Xzaryth released a shrill rebuke and the younger beast went silent.

Shaking my head, I bowed a little to Kiethe before turning to Xzaryth and introduced Cardan. In return, Cardan gestured to me and introduced me to his Gryphon. Once we were all acquainted, Cardan asked for Kiethe to descend. More than anything, the proximity of the other Gryphon to me agitated Xzaryth and he quickly dropped to my side.

Once more, Cardan's lips parted as his eyes widened. "You are not bonded," he mumbled. Shaking his head, he continued in a louder voice, "I have never seen a Gryphon react in such a way about someone whom they are not bonded with."

Reaching out a hand to stroke the dark fur of Xzaryth's shoulder, I shrugged. "My mother said that a Gryphon's capacity to love never stopped at one human. They just had to consider others worthy. She was considered worthy by many, she told me. By Xzaryth, Massimu—her father's Gryphon—and Maphail... They wouldn't choose her over their Riders, but she says they would choose her over the earth-bound."

"Are you not earth-bound?"

I flashed him a wicked smile. "Only when Xzaryth is punishing me."

Cardan shook his head, still too thunderstruck to speak. I took the opportunity to approach his partner. "Hello, Kiethe. Moon Shadow. That is a lovely name. Do you often carry passengers other than your Rider?"

Kiethe gave a huff and rocked his head from side to side. The morning light glided over his soft brown feathers and tawny hide, giving everything a hint of gold. Smiling, I took another surreptitious step forward.

"Would you allow me to fly with you to the Forest Realm?"

"Kiethe will do as I ask of him," Cardan grumbled.

"It is my place to ask, and his right to answer how he chooses."

My response seemed to please the Gryphon, for he took a couple of steps closer to me while his Rider settled his saddle in place. Xzaryth's feathers ruffled and I patted his shoulder before stepping forward to meet the younger creature. For a long time, I held his gaze before he finally gave an emphatic bob of the head.

"Thank you," I said, just as Cardan finished placing the saddlebags.

"We should be off. It will take us some days to return to the Forest."

I unslung the pack from my back and passed it to him. His features were expressionless as he secured the pack to the back of the saddle. Then he banged his fist against Kiethe's shoulder and the Gryphon leapt in place to test the security of the straps. Satisfied, Cardan turned to me.

I turned to Xzaryth. "I will return as circumstance allows. Take care of her for me. You know how lonely she becomes."

In response, my mother's love placed his giant head against my chest and released a loud huff. After a brief moment of enjoying the embrace, I stepped away from him. Until that moment, it never occurred to me how difficult it might be to turn my back on Xzaryth. Yet, when Cardan held his arm out to help me mount, I could not bear to look back at the Black Gryphon. It was too much like a goodbye, and I did not want to consider why.

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