Amadhay had a feeling that she was purposely being distracted from whatever Atlas was doing.
It took her a few loud exclamations and being steered in different directions to make her stop trying to convince herself that she was just being naturally suspicious. Once or twice, she would take as coincidence. Five times though? Five times was a stretch even for normal people.
Immediately, she had to clamp down on the mistrustful part of her that was screaming that she needed to figure out what was going on. She trusted Atlas. She trusted Ribbon. If the two of them had decided she didn’t need to know what he was doing, then she was going to go with their decision. After all, they had said that whatever Atlas was going to be doing was boring. Perhaps they were only trying to spare her.
Only it was really hard for her to honestly believe that. She felt very strongly that the two of them had gone out of their way to try to convince her not to come to the Mud Castle to begin with, Atlas only relenting, really, when he was holding her onto the pegasus. Ribbon, on the other hand, had been decidedly secretive since they had arrived. She had rushed Amadhay out of the comfortable room where Atlas had seated himself in wait for Stefan. She had urged Amadhay as far from that room in general, leading her through the gardens and the mud pool even though she knew Amadhay had no real interest in either. She had then led her through an awkward maze.
Or she had tried to.
They were lost right now. At least Amadhay was, which was saying something because she was known for having an incredible sense of direction—another skill Arne Riff had trained into her at a young age. To be honest, Amadhay simply assumed that if she was lost, so was Ribbon, an assumption that became certain fact when they had run into the same brush three times.
“Okay, I honestly have no idea where we are,” Ribbon admitted, squinting at the yellow flower Amadhay was positive they had passed three times. “But doesn’t that flower look familiar?” she asked.
Amadhay glared past her. “You said that the last two times too.”
“No, I’m certain this is a different one,” Ribbon attempted to assure her.
Amadhay gave her a long look. “Go on then. I’ll be right here when you come back.”
Ribbon shook her head. “What if I get out? I’m sure as Water not coming back for you if I do.”
“I can assure you that you won’t,” Amadhay said, rolling her eyes. “Go on. I’ll be right here.”
“Okay…” Ribbon said slowly, touching the pouch on her hip. “I’ll leave a trail just in case.”
Amadhay nodded, gesturing for her to go on. She waited until Ribbon was out of sight to attempt to crawl up one of the hedge walls. She wasn’t even surprised when no matter how high she climbed, she never reached the top. She had honestly been expecting it. Letting go of the green, she dropped right onto her feet as if she had only climbed inches rather than feet. She sighed and sat down just as Ribbon was coming back around.
Amadhay waved at her with a sardonic smile. “Welcome back, great voyager,” she said flatly. Ribbon stared at her in wonder before rushing forward to see that she had, indeed, ended up right where she had started. The trail of glitter was even in a full circle.
Ribbon gave an exasperated sigh. “Goddess, I just want to get out of here!” she exclaimed.
Amadhay sighed. “You shouldn’t have brought us through here if you didn’t know the way,” she said, kicking at a bush.
Ribbon gave a long sigh. “I thought I did. Kimmy and I come through here all the time. She always tears through here when she and Tairyn are trying to get a moment to themselves.”
Amadhay paused, looking up at Ribbon. “She and who?” she asked.
Ribbon blinked a few times before saying, “Kimmy and Ten. They come out here sometimes for privacy. Why? Who did you think I said?”
Amadhay shook her head, “Sorry. I thought you said Tairyn.” She gave an embarrassed laugh. “I don’t even know why he’d come to mind. He didn’t like mazes and he’s a swamp witch, not a hedge witch.”
Ribbon blinked innocently and Amadhay shrugged off the feeling that she had just been tricked. “Tairyn?” she asked.
Amadhay gave a small smile. “Tairyn was my first partner out of training. He was my best friend from the time I was nine until I was thirteen and we stopped talking. I don’t know why I’d be thinking about him. I normally don’t. He’s been on an offshore mission for a few years now.”
Ribbon shrugged almost guiltily, though Amadhay wasn’t sure if she had imagined the guilt or not. “How about we try the way I didn’t go?” the woman suggested, brushing glitter off onto her waterproof pants.
When Amadhay nodded, the two started picking their way through the maze again, this time in silence. This time around Amadhay led them, though she had never been in the maze before. Unsurprisingly to both girls, she was able to pick out a path based on what she was able to smell and hear, the cat of her aelfe making her senses stronger than the diluted elvish in Ribbon’s blood-witch.
“I hear Kimiko,” Amadhay said excitedly, positive that they were close to the end of the maze.
Ribbon perked up at that, following Amadhay’s gaze down the long pathway. “Follow her voice! She can get us out of here!”
Amadhay didn’t need Ribbon to tell her that, because she was already following the other teenager’s voice. As she followed, she was able to make out more than just her voice; she was able to make out snippets of conversation and another voice, a male voice that sounded mildly familiar.
“-and they’ve all been angry with each other for what feels like forever but it’s starting to get better, I think,” Kimiko said.
Amadhay narrowed her eyes, positive that the girl was talking about her, but not knowing why or to whom.
“Well that’s good, isn’t it?” the male voice asked. The voice was deep, resonating in a way that didn’t make sense for the rough texture.
“I guess,” Kimiko responded. Amadhay could just see her high ponytails over the top of the hedge. “It’s just that now that they’re not fighting, they’re all so confused and confusion tastes wrong. I mean I like their happiness better than their anger and sadness and loneliness, but they aren’t happy enough for it to taste like happiness, you know?”
Amadhay wasn’t sure what Kimiko was talking about, at all, but she could see her now, sitting on a bench. She was sitting on the back of the bench, making herself seem taller than the man she was talking to. He was sitting properly on the bench, his legs set apart and one of his arms wrapped around the girl’s waist.
When he laughed, he shook his long, long hair from his face. Amadhay froze, staring first at his hair. If he were standing, she would bet that it hit his knees now, quite a sight longer than his waist, like when she had last seen him. The dark black had either been dyed or stained a strange green color that reminded her of the swamp, much like his dark skin. Where it had once been a healthy brown color, either with age or from contact with the swamp waters, it now had a sickly, green hue to it and looked pale. He was taller than when she had last seen him and wearing clothes that fit him quite a bit better than the torn jeans, ripped and frayed jackets, and dirty t-shirts she had grown used to him wearing. But his smile was still his, was still a bright white shine across his otherwise dark features and his eyes still glowed an alarming silver color.
“Tairyn,” she whispered, coming to a stop.
His laugh stopped short, and she was able to compare his younger, melodious voice to his new, much deeper one when he spoke her name in reply. “Amadhay?”
Ribbon bumped into her. “Geeze, Red Bird. You can’t just run off without me. Give a girl some warning,” she said. When Amadhay didn’t shoot back a witty retort, she nudged the girl. “Red Bird?” she asked before looking past the girl, to the couple on the bench, who were frozen in shock.
Ribbon sucked in a breath just as Tairyn got to his feet. Tairyn, Kimiko, and Ribbon all spoke at the same time, Ribbon being the only one to properly sum up the situation.
“Mayday, I didn’t mean to—”
“Amadhay this isn’t what it—”
Amadhay only stared at Tairyn for a few more clicks before she took off running. At first, she ran slow enough that she heard three sets of footsteps following her, but she kept going faster and faster until she was at the speed she and Sha’adahk had been working on, the speed that felt like no one else was moving around her. She shot right out of the maze, into the garden, where Tairyn and Kimiko had been. She went through that garden, through the bug garden, right through the mud pool, barely making a splash she was moving so fast. She kept going until she was right back where she had started out, looking for Atlas, needing to talk to Atlas.
Her eyes were burning when she shoved the doors open, dropping her speed the moment she touched them. The room was empty and for a moment, she wanted to keep looking for Atlas, until she realized she was better off on her own. Like when she was a little girl and scared and needing to be alone to synthesize her own thoughts, she looked for the smallest place she could curl up and be hidden. She stripped off the raincoat and boots, tucking them under a couch. Seeing a seat that she recognized from the Madra job, she knew it had a false bottom. Knowing it was the best chance she had at not being found, she pulled it open and curled up inside, placing the seat back on top of her.
Now in the dark, alone, and tiny, Amadhay was able to let herself be upset. She didn’t cry, because she was a Hakinato and Hakinato’s don’t cry, but she did rub viciously at her eyes because they burned.
Tairyn. Her Tairyn. Yes, she had assumed he had been the one to betray her from day one because they knew things only he would know. Yes, she hadn’t seen him in almost three years, and hadn’t seen him regularly in longer than that. But he had been her Tairyn. He was the same boy who had told her, when he had been fourteen and she only nine, that he was going to Bind to her one day. He was the same one who had been with her, had comforted her after she had killed on her first mission. He was the same one who had been holding her hand when she had first spotted Amaya, the wild and utterly vicious Amaya who had been rescued from the Thief Lord when she was ten.
It was one thing to believe that person could betray her. It was a whole different thing to know it. No matter how she was with the Palnoki now, it was a betrayal of her, of her confidences in him. She hadn’t told him her every secret so that he could turn around and tell her worst enemy. She had told him because she had trusted him, had sincerely cared about him in a way she hadn’t known she could. He had been the first person besides Monkey that she had genuinely felt something other than vague amusement for. She had thought he loved her and he had betrayed her. For what?
She didn’t know. She wasn’t even sure she wanted to know. She couldn’t imagine anything that would make his betrayal any less heartbreaking. It didn’t matter why he did it. It only mattered that he did. If anything, the obvious relationship he and Kimiko had only made her hurt worse. It was like a triple lanced betrayal. He had betrayed her as a friend, as someone she trusted by giving away her information so freely. He had betrayed her as someone who had loved him by replacing her love with Kimiko’s.
And Kimiko, Kimiko had known all of that, had known their relationship, she had to have. Yet still she had not only taken him from her or had hidden the relationship from her, but she had hidden him from her. Kimiko had purposely kept Tairyn, who he was to her, to the Palnoki, how he’d betrayed Amadhay, a secret.
If anything, Amadhay was positive that that was what was hurting her the most.
She hadn’t seen Tairyn in years, so while finding out that he had truly been the one to betray her hurt, it wasn’t what had her hiding. She had been around the women almost every day for the past few months and neither had even mentioned Tairyn, had ever brought up that one of her friends from the Phoegani had defected. She had trusted Kimiko. She had trusted Ribbon. But clearly they didn’t trust her. She had been sure that they wouldn’t hide anything crucial from her. She had been positive that they cared about her, but she wasn’t sure about that anymore. She couldn’t imagine that they could honestly care about her and hide something like that from her.
And with that, her mind went to Atlas. Atlas who she had gone to for comfort. Atlas who she had trusted more than all the rest of them, had trusted enough to allow him to get her on top of a winged horse. Atlas had to have known this and kept it from her just as much as Kimiko and Ribbon. More, actually, because she had outright asked him who the informant was and he had…
He had never told her that it wasn’t Tairyn.
He hadn’t told her it was Tairyn, but he also certainly hadn’t said that it wasn’t. When she had decided it was Tairyn on her first day as his captive, Atlas had completely ignored her, which she hadn’t even thought about. She had known it was Tairyn from day one. Atlas had all but admitted it by ignoring her.
In some twisted, demented way, Amadhay was still sure that Atlas was trustworthy. Kimiko, and—worst of all, Ribbon—was not. They would have to start from scratch, if they were ever to regain her trust again. Ribbon had probably told her hundreds of tiny lies hundreds of times to cover up a slip up concerning Tairyn. Kimiko had told her that her partner’s name was Orvu, that she hadn’t met him because he lived far away and was completely uninvolved in all that the Palnoki did. All of those were obvious, blaring lies.
But Atlas, he hadn’t lied to her. Yes, he had kept it from her much like the women had, but that was his way. He never told her anything that he assumed she could figure out on her own. That was simply the way Atlas played with her. She knew that. She even loved that most days. She loved that he forced her to think instead of just letting her know everything she wanted to know.
In fact, considering his Gift and the way everything had gone, Amadhay was almost convinced that he had set it up for her to find Tairyn and Kimiko in the garden just as she had. It was too much of a coincidence that she just happened to be lost in the maze at the exact time, in the exact place that would lead her to hear Kimiko’s voice. It was too much of a coincidence that of all days, after them all working hard to keep her from seeing Tairyn—and she knew it must have been pretty hard considering Kimiko was a succubus and needed regular feeding from her partner—that she would just stumble onto him. Since Kimiko was almost always physically with her when not on missions, she couldn’t imagine when the two could have regularly been together. After all the effort it had to have taken the succubi not to be around the banshee, not to have him right on the same base, she was positive that there was no way that she had just stumbled onto them.
It was no coincidence that things had happened the way they had. Honestly, Amadhay wasn’t even sure that she believed in coincidences anymore. Every coincidence in her life, especially in the past six months could probably be linked to Atlas and his meddling. Every time she had accidentally bumped into someone right when they were looking for her, every time she had been right where she needed to be without knowing it, every time one of the Palnokians had been right where she needed them when she needed them, every one of those coincidences were Atlas’ doing.
For some reason, that calmed her. The idea that Atlas was at the helm, leading everything made it all less overwhelming. It made everything easier to manage.
Because despite everything else, she still trusted Atlas.