11. Bittersweet

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Mana's home was on the other side of the village. As we approached it, I could not help but notice how lonely it seemed. There were no voices drifting within the hut and the structure that housed the family Gryphons sat empty and alone. No tack hung upon the pegs and no beasts were stretched beneath the hide roof. Even the water trough was dried from lack of use.

She must have noticed my observation, for she remarked, "Now you know why I make it my business to care for Maphail, Azrael, and Kiethe. It gives purpose to a lonely old woman."

"Why not move in with my father and brother and Cardan?"

Shaking her head, she explained, "It would diminish his decision to take your mother as his wife. Mothers take up residence with their children only when there is no woman to care for them. If I were to do so, it would signal to the tribe that I believed him a widower or that she abandoned her family—the ultimate disgrace."

Even though it was true that my mother gave them up, my grandmother would not give the tribe the satisfaction of knowing it to be so. In my eyes, this woman was becoming a grand heroine. To save our family face, she lived alone and traveled across the entire village in order to care for her family's Gryphons.

"Thank you, Mana."

"It is my duty, my child. Thanks should be given for the unexpected."

"I was taught that gratitude is for everything. For every breath, every drop of water, and every act of kindness, no matter the intention behind it."

"And who taught you this?"

"Queen Thalon of Valhoal."

Her eyebrows crept up her forehead. "You are close with the Desert Queen?"

I smiled at the title my people had bestowed on her. "I was raised as one of her own. I call her children my siblings, and they count me as one of theirs. It is why I was chosen to be a Bridge Walker."

Mana pursed her thick lips as she pushed open the door into her house. "And the king? He counts you as one of his own?"

I ignored the sting as I admitted, "To this day there is a rumor that I am his bastard. In truth, Mana, I have never known a day without a father. Even if he did not sire me. That does not mean I do not long to meet my true father."

She heard the question I did not ask. "He has not been here in four weeks. Maphail is one of the elite and they are tasked quite often. Even more now that Ryin is a grown Rider. Soon, he will be able to test with the other men to see if he and Azrael will enter the ranks of the elite and be tasked as messengers."

"And you will have no one to look after if they are all gone on missions," I murmured.

The smile was forced but her voice sounded hopeful when she said, "It is about time for Cardan to take a wife. It may be that I have a new granddaughter soon. Perhaps even littler grandchildren to follow. Have no fear, child. I will always strive to remain useful."

Our conversation shifted as she showed me around her house and pointed out a bedroll for me to use. When we settled by the fire so that we could prepare a meal, I asked her about my grandfather and uncles and she spoke with some animation about each of them. Yet, I got the sneaking suspicion that my father was her favorite. A thought I dared not put into words, but it filled my heart with warmth to think of.

"Mana, what happened when my father brought my brother home?"

Her features stilled though her hands continued to stir the broth. Her eyes grew distant as she said, "I had never seen such mixture of elation and devastation warring within a man before then. It was my understanding that the parting between your parents was in every way bittersweet."

She leveled a pointed look on me and I flushed with an embarrassment that belonged to others. After all, it was during that fateful goodbye that I had been created. The child my father had never known about, because my mother had decided there was no reason to tell him.

"When your father burst into this house with a squalling infant in his arms, I wondered nothing of it at first. Being a mother, my first instinct was to quiet him in any way. When he was settled at last, I had no time to question your father. He sat down where you are now and told me what had happened between he and your mother. Mind, I had known in his youth that he pined after her. Most of the young men did in those days. What I had never suspected was that they would find one another again after so long a separation. Nor that she would relent to his charms.

"I want you to know, Tallie, that no greater sacrifice was made for the good of her child than when your mother relinquished Ryin. And I promise you, child, that no day in her life was spent without the ache of loss gnawing in her chest."

"She never hid that from me, Mana. It was not her way to hide things from me. Thus why I was so eager to meet him and tell him all about her. Just as I hope he may be able to tell me of our father."

"Then tell me."

I whipped around to find my brother looming in the doorway, with Cardan a step behind. His features were a mask of rage and his words snapped out layered in venom.

"Tell me why my mother gave me away but kept you."

Slowly I rose to my feet, ignoring my grandmother's cough or the slight shake of Cardan's head. But I was a Bridge Walker, and if he wanted this answer, he would first have to hear my question.

"Tell me how you would feel if you never met Azrael."

At once, his jaw locked and his eyes grew flat. Yet, it was the disgust that twisted his mouth that caused me to nod.

"She gave you to our father because he could raise a better son than she could. She kept me because she could raise a better daughter. Do you dare tell me that she was wrong?"

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