“Well, hey there, darlin,” said a familiar Qatu voice. Sath dropped out of his perch, on the largest branch of the tree, and landed soundlessly on the ground in front of her. “You’re not out here alone, are you?” His eyes twinkled in a way that Gin had never seen before, and something about it made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.
“No,” she replied, trying to sound braver than she felt. “Are you? Is your mate not with you?”
Sath chuckled. “No, Anni’s over at our campsite on the other side of that ridge asleep. I don’t know how she can manage that, with the moon high in the sky and so many stars to see. Remember how we…” his voice trailed off as he studied her for a moment, then frowned. “You out here with Tee? I’d love to see him.”
“He is asleep at our campsite. It was Ben’s watch, but I woke up when we heard you rummaging around over here,” Gin replied. Their shared memory of lying under the stars had hit her as hard as it seemed to have done for Sath, and she bit her lip to hold back long-buried emotions that surprised her with their intensity. “I’d let that alone, Sath. Tee is none too pleased at how you just abandoned us.”
“Abandoned…I did not…what?” Sath scratched his head, and Gin thought for a moment that he genuinely looked surprised. He ran one of his massive hands over the top of his head and then smiled down at her. “You’re right, I wouldn’t dare wake that dwarf just to say hello.” He considered her for another long moment. “So, your Taeben is hunting with the Fabled Ones full-time now?” he asked, grimacing. “Never would have thought that Tee would have allowed that.”
“Yes, he is, and Ben is amazing at what he does,” Gin said, pointedly ignoring the pained look that now spread across the Qatu’s face. “He is the most accomplished and talented wizard I have ever known and has saved all of us on more than one occasion.” She twirled a lock of hair that had come loose from her ponytail around her finger. “Ben may be a bit rough around the edges, but he has a good heart and only wants to protect me…and the rest of us, of course.” She swallowed hard as Sath studied his feet. “So what are you doing here, anyway? Did you kill all of the game on Qatu’anari?”
Sath had moved a bit closer to her, and she was trying to resist the urge to run. The way he was looking at her was both drawing her in and frightening her at the same time. “Of course not. I love hunting out here; I love the stars and how clear it is,” Sath replied. “But I’m not sure why she…why my…” He made another swipe over the top of his head with his hand. “What was I saying?”
“Are you all right?” Gin asked, her concern overtaking her hurt.
“I don’t know,” Sath replied. “I feel dizzy like I’m coming out of a fog or something.” He shook his head to clear it and then beamed a toothy grin down at her. “Now, tell me, darlin, why are you running around on your own? You said that Taeben is on watch, so I guess he knows you are over here, right?” He took a step closer to her and Gin noticed that his gaze seemed to sharpen the closer he was. In fact, he seemed to come into focus as he took another step closer. She felt her face flush. “Does he know who you are with now?”
“Aye, he does,” she managed to say, unable to take her eyes off his. A small, steady voice in the back of her mind urged her to step back, but she ignored it. The voice grew more and more angry. “May I ask you a question?” she asked. Sath chuckled.
“Have I ever been able to stop you?” he said, grinning. “What is it, darlin?”
“Okay, well, two questions, but we will get to the second one later,” she said, scowling at him. “Why did you really leave us, Sath? I know you love Anni and all, but both of you could have come hunting with us.” The change in his expression intrigued her, and she reached out tentatively to touch his arm. “Tee misses you, but you know how he is, he won’t even say your name. Stubborn dwarf. Calls you Cat.”
“Anni didn’t feel comfortable with all of you after what happened in the Tower with that dragonkind sorceress, Gin,” Sath replied. Gin thought his words sounded rehearsed, but she let that idea go. “She didn’t think you would trust her.”
“Aye, she is right about that,” Gin replied grimly. “Especially considering her ability to forget all of us save you in a fight. But the question is, Sath, why do you trust her at all? She nearly got Kazhmere killed. Killed! Your only sister! Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
“Of course it does, Gin,” Sath said, his voice gruff. “But she is my kind, Gin, and I have known her since we were children. Anni is young and inexperienced. She didn’t know what she was getting into. What if I had run off and left you every time you singed my fur with misplaced spells?” Gin frowned. “She and I…we make sense, Gin. I…love her.”
Gin nodded her head as Sath’s words passed slowly through her heart like a white hot blade. He loved Anni. The blade twisted, and Gin felt short of breath. But why? She may have had some misguided feelings for him in the past, but now she had…Taeben. It was crystal clear to her in that moment. “It’s like me and Ben,” she said, suddenly more sure of herself. “We were childhood friends. We are both elves. I get it.”
“You mean…you love…Taeben?” Sath asked, his words forming slowly. The fog lifted with sudden alacrity, and Gin saw anger and…jealousy in his teal gaze. That was new. “Have you let him…has he…” The Qatu snatched her up from the ground and buried his face in her hair, holding her wriggling form tightly as he inhaled, his face moving down her neck and onto her shoulders. “His scent is on you, all over you,” he hissed, disgusted, as he dropped her.
“I am not sure how that’s any of your business anymore, Sath,” Gin replied as she stood and dusted herself off. She turned to head back to the campsite but looked back over her shoulder at Sath to find him with his face in his hands, inhaling deeply.
“Sunflowers…Gin…I’d forgotten…,” he said softly, then closed the space between them and again grabbed Gin up in his powerful arms and crushed her to his chest. Gin did not fight him this time but instead wound her fingers into the fur around his face and on his neck, snuggling into his warmth. There was almost an audible clap as the defenses in her mind that kept Taeben out slammed shut, and Gin came back to herself. She loved him, Sath, not Taeben, that was all she knew, but he did not love her back; and this feeling of safety and…something else? Whatever it was, it would have to end soon, and he would return to Anni and their life. Gin pushed back from him until she was looking him in the eye.
“Yes, darlin?” he replied, his eyes hooded and his gaze warm.
“Do you really love Anni?” At her question, he squeezed her back against his chest, inhaling deeply before carefully setting her back on the ground. “Do you?” she asked again. Still, he remained silent as he looked at her, hooking one of his clawed fingers under her chin and lifting her face to meet his gaze as he knelt in front of her.
“Aye,” he said, sounding unsure. “At least, I think I do. Do you love Taeben?”
“No,” she whispered. The confusion in the back of her mind started up a dull roar that soon built to a painful wail, but it was merely noise. She stepped away from him and turned on her heel. It was a few moments before she heard the groaning of the tree as he leaped back up to the branch. “I love you, darlin,” she whispered as she walked swiftly back toward her campsite and what was sure to be a furious Taeben. She knew the extent of Sath’s preternatural hearing abilities meant he could hear her still. “Always you.” Up in the tree, hidden by the leaves, Sath smiled.