18. Choice

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"You have caused quite the stir," Mana admonished as we slunk into her house.

"I intended no harm," I began before she waved me off.

"Of course not. And it is not harm that causes the stir, but a new sense of discovery. Many men are there now eager to discover the bonds their partners may have forged with those of their blood. I have no trouble in admitting that I am quite eager to know how Maphail will react to you after what I witnessed today."

Heat gathered in my face. "You were there?"

"Of course. As soon as I heard Kiethe's cry, Cardan began running and I hobbled as best I could to the scene. Quite remarkable that Massimu should recognize you. Yet, not remarkable at all, given how much you resemble her."

"Or she has that effect on the poor boys," Cardan said as he folded his long legs to sit beside the fire. "First Xzaryth, now Kiethe and Massimu. They all feel the need to protect her as if she is a treasure."

"Xzaryth?" my brother asked at the same time our grandmother remarked, "Is she not?"

Cardan bowed his head in answer to Mana before he turned to Ryin and explained about his first meeting with the Black Gryphon. In silence, I ladled more stew into bowls for the four of us, studiously ignoring the looks I was getting. Then there was a sharp intake of breath when Cardan let it slip that Xzaryth could one day choose to be bonded to me.

"That is not our way," Ryin hissed in a voice almost too low to be heard.

With a sigh, I set his bowl in front of him and raised my eyes to his. "It is not something to be forced on him. I will only make the bond if he wishes it. But I will not force him away from the only home he has known in almost thirty years."

"Now that would be a sight to see," Mana sighed. Then a broad smile stretched across her face. "Two Riders for daughters. Now would that not give me an edge in the gossip circles?"

Cardan chuckled while Ryin groaned. I put the bowl to my lips and sipped at my stew as if it were not about me. Everyone else soon followed my example and began to eat. Halfway through the meal, however, Ryin caught my eyes across the fire.

In a low voice, he asked, "Do you want to be a Rider like our mother?"

The question was a hard one for me to answer, but I had known the answer for some time. "No. I will take up a partnership with Xzaryth if I must, but beyond that I have never known the sky to offer freedom as she does. As you do. No, I am earth-bound in other ways and I find my freedom in the small choices I make from day to day."

"Such as the choices you made today?" Cardan asked.

Raising my eyes to the ceiling, I sighed, "Will you never relent?"

"Never," he promised.

"What freedom will you choose when your task is completed, I wonder."

All three of us looked at Mana while she stared at me. Swallowing, I said what we all knew must be. "I will return to Valhoal once things have concluded between the Blood Dragon and I."

"Is that what you wish or what is expected of you?"

My smile was a little sad as I remarked, "There are no expectations for me, Mana. Not anymore."

"What does that mean?" Ryin asked.

"It means that our mother has given me my freedom. She will be grateful if I return, but she will not hold me to any decree of hers. I am a woman now, and free to make my own decisions."

"But you will return?"

"Yes. That is what I intend to do. She has lost more than enough family, and I have one of my own waiting for me. While I do not intend to forsake the Forest as she did, I also do not believe my place is beneath its trees."

"And what if someone decides to make it your place? You agreed to be presented once Raydin returns," Cardan announced.

At that, I had to smile. "Forest born, but desert bred. Freedom and choice are the things we hold most sacred in the desert, because Valhoal was built by those who once had neither. I do not think those are things any man would try to take from me. And if he did, then he is not worthy of my consideration."

Ryin grinned as well. "Not to offend, but I do believe that once Father lays eyes on you, he will no doubt find that no man is worthy of you. I think he may scare off any suitors before they dare to come calling."

Mana gave a little harrumph. "If you and Cardan have not done the deed for him before he returns."

As one, the two men raised their bowls and thudded them together in a congratulatory salute, causing us all to laugh. Even so, I felt a twinge in my heart as I thought of the day my father might return.

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