On the Subject of Griffons
They’ll do anything to save their children’s lives, even if it means working together.
Kera Montgomery is still mourning the sudden death of her husband, Morpheus, when her youngest son falls victim to a mysterious plague. With no medicinal cure, Kera must travel to the Long Lakes, where magical griffons capable of healing any ailment reside.
As an heiress unused to grueling travel, Kera struggles with the immense emotional and physical strain of her journey—one made more complex when she crosses paths with her husband’s former mistress, Aurora. Aurora’s daughter is afflicted with the same plague as Kera’s son, so despite their incendiary history, the two women agree to set aside their differences and travel together.
The road is fraught with dangers, both living and dead. Each night, old battlegrounds reanimate with ghosts who don’t know they’ve died, and murderous wraiths hunt for stray travelers caught out after dark. If Kera, Aurora, and their children are going to survive, they’ll need to confront the past that’s been haunting them since their journey began. And perhaps in the process, discover that old friends may not be as trustworthy as they once thought—and old enemies may become so much more.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
Dubious Consent (backstory)
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abuse, angst, atonement, bisexuality, cheating, colonialism, death / the afterlife, depression, divorce, domestic violence, duty, enemies to lovers, epistolary, family, feminism, financial gap / class disparity, first love, first time, found family, friends to lovers, gender roles, ghosts, grief, heritage, history, hurt / comfort, illness / injury, interracial/multicultural, kids, legends, marriage, misogyny, mysticism, natural disaster, politics / power struggle, power imbalance, protection, PTSD, recovery, religion, self-confidence, self-discovery / self-reflection, the power of stories, trust issues
Kera sat with her hands folded in her lap. Her father, on her left, negotiated with the bankers, while her sister, Ciara, silently offered support from Kera’s right. Kera would have preferred to have this conversation without them, but the bankers had come by no less than four times this week. They weren’t interested in speaking to her, and listening to them spin the same horrid story as they waited for her to find proper representation grew more exhausting by the hour.
Each morning she woke to them knocking on her door, refusing to leave until she let them in. She’d tried ignoring them. She’d made every effort to block them from her mind. But her children had started to look nervous whenever there was a knock on the door, a trend she had no interest in continuing or encouraging if she could help it.
So she let the bankers in. She was talked at. And at some point, she’d memorized their spiel enough to recite it by heart. They always started with their shows of sympathy: “You must understand . . . a lady such as yourself is just not equipped to manage such things.” And they always concluded by asking her to sell her home.
Ciara had been incensed when Kera described the meetings, insisting that they call their father to intervene. It took two weeks before Kera managed to overcome the guilt and despair of not being able to handle the bankers herself. Giving in felt like giving up, and Kera loathed how despondent it made her.
Still, her father had conducted business between the banks of Ship’s Landing and Alexandria for years, advising the Travers banking institution from the comfort of his home at Crystal Point. He wasn’t quite the legend that Kera’s husband, Morpheus, had been, but he was respected enough to mean more to these men than her.
The bankers always came in pairs. Their hair was held back with dark ribbons, black tricorn hats tucked low over their eyes, and their pocket watches clicked far too loud for her liking. Even though there were different representatives each day, they were always from the same bank, with the same pocket watches, always clipped to the same button on their waistcoats.
Her father barely batted an eye at their pocket watches or their coats. He seemed impervious to the nuisance presented before her eyes. He told the bankers in small, simple words that the Ivory Gate was his daughter’s home. Kera and her children would not be moved from it. The debts would be paid, but considering her husband’s death . . . she needed time to restructure them. In any case, she hadn’t missed a single payment yet, so their concern, while appreciated, was unnecessary.
Appreciated. Kera squeezed her fingers in her lap. She could not imagine something she appreciated less.
“We’re concerned for Widow Montgomery,” one of the bankers insisted. “Being a widow of a trait—”
“My husband was not a traitor,” Kera said. Ciara’s fingers snatched at Kera’s palm and squeezed tight. Pain blossomed around fragile bones not used to such strength. The bankers nodded their heads, placating and somber; one even reached out to pat her knee.
“We understand it’s been a trying time for you, madam. But your husband’s attempt on our esteemed Overseer Wild’s life was quite apparent . . . I imagine discovering you were wed to an assassin must be rather difficult.”
“And yet it’s my husband who’s dead and not the overseer.”
Ciara’s grip was near bruising. Even Father sighed and shook his head.
“You must forgive my daughter. As you said, it’s been a trying time.” He cut her a sharp glance from the corner of his eye. He’d been terrifying in her youth. One look could send demons into her heart and mind, promising a lifetime of torment should she not obey. Even so far into her maturity, with children well on their way to adulthood of their own, he could cow her with a frown. Kera’s limbs turned loose and awkward beneath his expression. She tilted her head toward her chest and she squeezed her sister’s fingers in return. “Though I will say, the reasons for Montgomery’s actions were never understood. As assassination carries a more political lean . . . It’s entirely possible that he acted from more personal strife.”
Heat rushed to Kera’s cheeks. She could feel the men casting looks about themselves, nodding and smiling and nudging their elbows in a way that made her skin crawl. Her tongue affixed itself firmly to the bottom of her mouth even as one of the bankers dared to say, “Ah yes, the Aurora Sinclair affair. Wasn’t too long ago now was it? Such burdens the gentleman placed on his family.”
“Perhaps we should move on?” Ciara suggested airily, fingers still tight around Kera’s palm.
The bankers cleared their throats. “Yes, ah, of course. Ahem. Well, you see we’ve calculated her income. As we said, from our understanding the Widow Montgomery will not be able to continue payments for much longer. Agreeing to this sale will be a preemptive measure to ensure she will not be taken advantage of in the future.”
The other banker reached for the tea that Kera had served them twenty minutes ago. It had cooled, but he didn’t appear to mind. “And with the plague in the city and all these children . . . holding on to this house may not be in the widow’s best interest.”
Father hummed low, running a hand over his chin as he inspected the documents the bankers were quick to offer. Each one showed line item after line item of projected expenses and return on investments. Kera had looked them over each time they came calling, and they always seemed the same.
Her shoulders sagged, falling out of their forced posture. After two hours of negotiations, through most of which she had been ignored, Kera was finished. She could not fathom why her presence would be required any longer. “Excuse me, gentlemen.” She pushed from the pale green couch her husband had purchased during her first pregnancy and strode from the room.
Ciara followed behind, keeping careful pace with her. Not so close as to risk stepping on the hem of her dress, but still close enough that Kera could feel her walking through the slight tremble of the floor. “They’re not trying to be disrespectful,” Ciara informed Kera, each word clipped and pointed.
Kera nodded. She knew that all too well. In fact, when they came tomorrow, she could hear them tell it to her face again. “We’re just concerned for you, Widow Montgomery.” And then they would request that she sell her home and all her belongings once more. Just yesterday, they’d taken it upon themselves to instill their opinions on her current state of being. “A woman such as yourself, widowed so . . . unfortunately, should be taken care of by a proper gentleman. One who will not act so brashly.”
“You realize they hate me only because my husband put their patriarch in jail. Henry Travers was guilty on all charges, but that bank has been nothing but horrid to our family ever since.”
“They don’t hate you, Kera; they’re conducting a good faith service for their business. It’s in their interest for you to sell. It isn’t personal.”
“Of course it’s personal,” she murmured, letting her eyes travel over the dusty webs on her ceiling. “Everything is personal.” Dust had accumulated on all the surfaces, and though she’d known she had to clean for a while, she hadn’t managed to quite bring herself to do it. The servants had been sent away not long after Mori’s death. She hadn’t been reckless with her finances; she did know they were finite.
But now the house was unwashed. There was a faint smell of something rotting in the floor, lurking in the cellar, and she hadn’t yet mustered the energy to find it. It was one thing too many, and she wasn’t interested in tracking down every flaw in the world. There were too many to number.
Ciara had started herding Kera’s children into industriousness not long ago. Kera had heard them singing songs as they cleaned their rooms and tidied the kitchen. The older ones had been helpful, minding their siblings even as they attempted to put things right.
“It’s been a year,” Ciara reminded her.
“Has it?” That couldn’t be true. There had been no celebrations for the start and end of winter. No feast days. She couldn’t recall the name-day gatherings. They hadn’t celebrated her union day. She folded her hands together and rubbed at the ring she still wore: two bands folded together in an endless loop.
“I don’t suppose you have a destination in mind?” Ciara asked.
Kera stopped short, feet skidding to a halt. They had been walking in circles, looping up and around the Ivory Gate’s second floor without so much as a pause to float between rooms. Dropping her hands back to her sides, she pressed her lips together.
Ciara sighed. She stepped closer to Kera and said in her kindest voice: “It’s all right to grieve.”
No, it wasn’t.
She hadn’t been permitted the luxury of grieving without condemnation since the day following Mori’s funeral. She was reminded that she had eight—seven children, and that it was her responsibility to find them a father who would raise them properly. Whatever that meant. Some people were kind enough not to mention how Mori’s influence had already led one of her children down the path of dueling and debauchery. Some were not. She had heard the whispers in the streets, the vile things said at the market. “At least the young one won’t have any of his influence.” As if little Aiden not knowing his father were a good thing.
“Can you imagine what Mori would have said to our guests downstairs?” she asked Ciara instead.
Ciara allowed the change of topic, stepping closer to loop her arm around Kera’s. “I imagine Morpheus would have given them quite the lecture on proper banking and financing while they sat upon the couch taking notes the whole time, charmed by his nature and awed by his genius.”
Kera could envision how he would look. His slight body dressed in his favorite green coat, arguing with words she doubted even ten percent of the population knew the definition of. She smiled at the thought of it.
“Kera?” Ciara asked, gently. Always gently. Kera’s smile slipped away. Ciara was waiting for an actual response, but words shriveled and died on Kera’s tongue.
She clawed desperately at the folds of her brain and managed to say, “He’d have been furious with the plague.”
Her sister was not impressed. “If only he’d managed to put his temper toward something productive before he passed.”
Something wet pricked at Kera’s eyes. She turned her head so her sister couldn’t see, feigning an adjustment to trail her sleeve across her lashes and catch tears before they fell. Ciara, however, was not so easily convinced. She pressed on, determined. “Would it be so bad to sell the Gate? There haven’t always been . . . the best memories here.”
The words were a betrayal—wrapping around her throat with a cloying hand that strangled even as it pretended to help. “And which memories would those be?” Kera asked so quietly she wasn’t even sure her sister would hear her.
But she had. She touched Kera’s shoulder, saying her name in full like it would somehow ease the blow. “Kerryn—”
“No.” Kera shook her head. “No. This is my home, Ciara. And I’m not going to leave it just because . . . I’m not going to leave it.”
“I couldn’t live in a house where my husband died,” Ciara said. “Where my son died.”
Kera twisted back, away from her sister. She shook her head, brought one hand to her mouth.
“Kera, even before that, with Mori’s affair and the blackmail—”
“He never brought her here,” she snapped. “He promised. He never brought her here.”
Ciara said nothing. Her fingers fiddled with a loose hair ribbon at her front. She wrapped it around her palm forward and backward, tightening and loosening as she gave Kera what must have been the most pitying look in her arsenal.
“It doesn’t matter either way. Good or bad, Ciara . . . This is our home.” Kera swallowed hard. “Mori promised me forever in this home, and I’ll not lose it just so some bankers can add it to their collection.”
One of her hands slipped to the locket she’d worn since the day she was married. Her husband had presented it to her when no one was around to see, shy even though they’d already exchanged their vows. He was scheduled to return to the war in the morning, but they’d made no mention of it that night. He’d placed the locket in her palm and requested that she keep him in her heart. He had whispered, “My beloved Kera, I wish you all the happiness in the world,” in her ear, and she’d held it close always. She ran her fingers over the locket’s sides and edges, thumbed at the clasp with a nail in need of snipping.
Ciara bit her lip, then started talking, even as Kera’s thumb found the clasp. “There is a lot of debt that is in need of . . . restructuring.”
Her concern was sisterly and fond, but Kera would not be swayed. She popped the locket open, then snapped it shut without even looking at it, repeating the action a few more times as she replied. “I will not take my children from the home their father built for them.”
Ciara folded her hands in front of her, a delicate gesture of calm. She nodded her head, even bent her knees a little—the slightest curtsy Kera had ever seen—serving as an apology and polite acceptance in one. “I am worried for you, my Kerryn.”
“Well you need not be.” Kera’s hand fell back to her side. Even if her father ceased his support, even if her sister refused to give her aid, she would not be moved from this house. She would not leave her home. The gods themselves couldn’t move her from this building, so let the bankers try.
Tipping her head toward her sister, she asked for a few moments of privacy. Ciara didn’t seem surprised by the request. It was one that Kera had asked for countless times over the past few months. Ciara did seem resigned, however—resigned and despondent even as she smiled and kissed Kera’s cheek. She told Kera that she would attend to the children, wherever they might be, and departed without another word.
Kera stumbled to her room, closing the door behind her. She slid down the hard wood surface, and drew her knees up to her chest. Her dress pooled around her, fabric bunching along the boards. Then, with no one around to see her and her brow resting on her knees, Kera let herself cry.
She tried to overcome the swell of hysteria, but the tears came without consideration to her efforts. The damnable headache that always came in tandem with her tears arrived in prompt fashion, as if to say well you’re already in pain, what’s a bit more? You can take it!
As foolish and as ignorant as the bankers might think her, Kera was aware of her predicament. For all his wonderful talents, Mori had borrowed too much in order to see this house built. He had promised her the world, and ignored the cost, desperate to give her a life she thought she wanted.
But she had never wanted this.
She had just wanted him with her. She had wanted him when he was a penniless soldier fighting in the revolution against Trent, when he’d been desperate and eager to please. She wished she could turn back the clocks. She wished she had asked him to leave the war behind for her. Or, barring that, she wished she had asked him not to follow General Zakaria into politics. He could have worked as a lawyer, and they could have had a quiet and comfortable life.
There would have been no dreams of Ivory Gates or glory, but neither would there have been pistols at dawn and death that ruined everything they had ever planned.
Kera allowed herself a moment to laugh, holding the locket tight, tears staining her knees. She laughed. Mori would never have settled for anything less than what he had done. He had never been capable of sitting still. Such a quiet life would have brought him unimaginable misery. He would have become something wicked and cruel: a chained beast that snarled and snapped at any who passed. Their marriage would no longer have been a thing he treasured, but a thing he endured.
He’d had one affair during a time when their relationship was already filled with bliss. She couldn’t imagine what would have happened if he’d been miserable at home.
Something shattered downstairs. The echoes of glass hitting the floor reverberated through the house even as Kera heard her sister scream. Lifting her head, Kera pushed herself to her feet. Ciara shouted, “Aiden!” over and over, and each recitation of her son’s name drove Kera’s heart faster and faster.
She rushed out, tripping on her skirt hem in her haste. She jerked at the fabric to pull it up and out of the way. When she reached the ground floor, she saw them all together. The bankers, her father, Ciara, her children—all seven—assembled in the parlor, door to the cellar cracked open just a little. The children liked to play down there from time to time, but their play had been interrupted. Aiden was on the floor, shaking, limbs thrashing. His dark eyes were rolled back in his head and his mouth was frothing.
Kera pressed her hand to her lips, and she leaned against the doorway. No. Not little Aiden . . .
But it was too late. The plague had come to the Ivory Gate, and for the second time in as many years, she felt helpless.
As Kera stood immobile, her father ordered her children to collect their things and leave the Ivory Gate. Ciara rushed out to find a physician as Kera knelt on the floor with her four-year-old son nestled in her arms and stroked her fingers through his hair. The bankers fled. They covered their mouths and rushed out without concluding their negotiations. Kera couldn’t be bothered to find out where the talks had left off. It didn’t matter.
Her son was dying.
Kera listened as her father made plans. He spoke and made decisions. He determined the safest place for her other children would be up north in Alexandria, nestled in the Leona family estate of Crystal Point. He told her she should go too, and she had stared at him until he backed down. A strategy that worked well on parents, but did nothing at all to assuage the fears of children as they were ordered toward the door.
Cirri, Kera’s eldest, had the good sense to wait until her grandfather had left the room before approaching. She was already bundled in her traveling cloak, her hair pulled back in a tight braid at the nape of her neck. Everyone always said she looked like Kera, but when Cirri asked, “Is Aiden going to die?” Kera could only see her husband in her daughter’s face.
“I don’t know.”
Cirri’s jaw set. She peered over Kera’s shoulder toward the closed door her brother lay behind. “Can I see him before we go?”
“No.” Kera shook her head before Cirri could argue. “You know that if you . . . if you contract his illness. You know you won’t be allowed past the quarantine. Even as it is, your grandfather is going to have to sneak you out of the city. There’s enough risk at the moment, we can’t add more to it.”
One of the kids dropped something, and there was an argument starting in the parlour. Junior snapped at all of them until the shouts stopped.
“Will you look after them for me? Until we can return?”
“I’d rather stay here.”
“At the Gate?”
“If you’re taking Aiden away, then there’s no contagion here. I can finish my classes and—”
“Cirri. Are you honestly arguing to stay behind in an empty home, abandoning your siblings to the care of your aging grandfather for the sole purpose of attending university?”
“She wants to stay behind because she’s convinced she’s found her one,” Junior announced, entering the room.
Cirri let out a noise—half screech, half howl—and thrust a furious elbow at her younger brother, but he sidestepped it deftly, dancing out of its way. She blushed furiously, stumbling around her words as she babbled another excuse.
Pressure built behind Kera’s eyes. She rubbed at the bridge of her nose, mind whirling and stalling whenever she felt close to finding an appropriate response. Cirri and Junior had started bickering, though, and it quickly drowned out any calm reaction she could have maintained. “Enough.”
“Your brother is dying of a plague, Cirri.” Her hand dropped to her side. “I need you to take care of your siblings. I need Junior to escort you all, and my father, safely to the Point. And I need to trust you both can manage this maturely without purposefully instigating one another. If you’ve found someone, then they will be here for you when this is over.”
They both had the good grace to look chastised. “Auggie and John are old enough to understand,” Junior said quietly, “but Marcus and Kerryn . . . what are we supposed to tell them? They don’t even really remember when our older brother died . . .”
“They’re scared,” Cirri muttered, as though she hadn’t wanted to admit it. As though, if she’d ignored it long enough, it wouldn’t actually be true. It wouldn’t actually be something she’d need to face.
“I am too.” Kera placed her hands on their cheeks, cradling them as gently as she could. “And Aiden . . . he’s scared as well. But, we can’t let fear keep us from moving forward. Or from protecting the ones we love. I’m going to be there for him, but I can’t be there for you or them. I need to know I can depend on you both.”
“You can . . .” they said, worry still firmly affixed on their faces.
“But . . .” Junior glanced toward the door once more. “Will . . . will he survive?”
The papers had written about little else in the past few months except for the plague. They’d described it as an all-encompassing illness, though one that acted erratically with no known explanation. Some victims fell ill and died within the day. Others held on to life for weeks before giving up the ghost. Kera couldn’t tell her children which version Aiden would have. She couldn’t even assuage their fears by telling them it didn’t seem so bad. She, like the physicians and healers with their useless tinctures and equally worthless advice, could not even begin to predict how this would continue to manifest.
“I hope so,” she whispered to them both. Then, kissing their brows, she drew them into fierce hugs. “Please, please look after your siblings.”
They promised, and then they were gone. They left with one brother or sister held in each hand, walking tall as they climbed into a carriage heading north. Kera waited until they’d left for good, and took a moment to pray for their safe travels.
Then she turned and opened the door to her youngest son’s room.
Ciara was there with a physician she’d summoned. He was still examining Aiden. The man wasn’t anyone Kera recognized, but he moved Aiden’s limbs this way and that, applying his concoctions with practiced ease that spoke of experience. Yet despite various liquids being poured down Aiden’s throat, her son did not wake.
“Is there truly no cure?” Ciara asked. She wrapped an arm around Kera’s shoulders as the physician finished drawing a blanket up to Aiden’s chin.
The man straightened himself up to his full height and peered down his nose at them. “You are . . . the Widow Montgomery, correct?” he asked in return, as though he didn’t already know the answer to his question. As though this house hadn’t been marred and mocked, praised and held up as the pinnacle of town gossip.
Kera entertained the idea of climbing to the top of a table, glaring down at the physician and asking why her name or status should mean a thing. Her son lay ill on her bed while he wished to exchange pleasantries. Or more likely, he wished to see what he could extort from her. Instead, she dipped her head. “I am,” she replied, finding her voice because of necessity alone. She could serve as a proper widow for his inspection, just as she could serve as a proper wife and mother.
The man rubbed his beard. “There is no cure.”
Kera’s breath stuttered twice in her throat before finding egress. She turned her back on the scene, ignoring how Ciara kept whispering soft prayers at the boy still lying in an unmoving heap in the same place her firstborn and her husband had died. Maybe Ciara was right. Maybe this house did have too many bad memories.
“However,” the physician continued, flicking his eyes toward Ciara, as if he knew the next words he spoke would be foul and wrong. “A woman of your . . . financial security”—Kera longed to laugh at that—“may find other ways to alleviate your son’s ailments.”
“You charlatan hack!” Ciara hissed. She strode across the room with one hand rising in fury. Sensing his imminent doom, the man stepped back, bowing his head to avoid the blow.
“I mean no offense, my lady, but money does have influence in the world.”
“You would hold my sister’s child hostage? His health a prisoner to your greed? You would rule yourself through avarice, you disgrace?” Ciara never had shied away from speaking her mind, nor flinched from high society and all its imperfections. Kera envied her strength of will, her fortitude.
Little Aiden let out a mewling sound, and Kera faltered. She tore her eyes from the physician and Ciara so she could sit at his side. Her fingers touched his damp hair. It’s too much. Please. It’s too much.
The physician was making excuses. Spit left his mouth as he sputtered and attempted to explain, but Ciara refused to listen. She badgered him onward, insulting him and threatening him with legal action when his protests continued. “As you said, she is the Widow Montgomery, and if you believe that we will not take this to the overseer himself . . .” Ciara trailed off. Ciara clearly had far more faith in their overseer than Kera did. The mere thought that Overseer Wild would grant Kera an audience after everything with Mori was absurd. Any chance he’d had at executing some form of professionalism had vanished when he’d refused to respond to her letters regarding her husband’s missing pension payments. A clerk had needed to write to her eventually, saying that she was lucky she hadn’t been evicted from her home and all assets seized under suspicion of treason. No. There’d be no help there.
The physician looked between the sisters with clear uncertainty before clearing his throat. “I meant only that the cost for such medicine is high, not that I would defraud the good lady.”
Kera wanted to speak up and ask him to state his intentions, but her throat seemed to swell closed. Words refused to leave her mouth. Her sister needed to intercede on her behalf, mustering her fury in Kera’s stead.
“You will inform us forthwith, or I will call for the soldiers to come.”
“Griffons, my lady,” the physician squeaked. “Griffons are said to shed feathers that can cure blindness, grow talons that can cure any illness. Should the lady have the funds for such an expedition, these tokens could save the boy’s life.”
Aiden’s brown eyes moved beneath his lids. His lashes opened just enough for her to see them. They were wet and tragic, glistening and fever sick. Kera tried to smile for her boy. She tried to encourage him, and tell him that he was going to be all right. However, Aiden’s eyes closed too quick for that, and his breathing sounded more ragged by the moment.
Acting as Kera’s spokesperson, Ciara was undaunted and undeterred. She plowed forward, snarling, “Griffons haven’t lived in these parts for hundreds of years. The closest we’ve had are tourist trinkets sold in the streets.”
The physician swallowed, looking too disquieted to continue. But as he squirmed, Kera thought back to what she knew of the creatures . . . “Mori rode into one during the war,” Kera whispered aloud, recalling how he used to pace the house during thunderstorms, rubbing at three deep scars that ran from shoulder to elbow on his left arm. “He said they migrate north from time to time . . .”
Seemingly emboldened, the physician nodded briskly. “There aren’t usually any in the north . . . but there are nests in the south. And there are permanent nests near the Long Lakes.”
Ciara scoffed loudly, snapping that “The Long Lakes are hundreds of miles away!” while Kera envisioned the journey. A map formed in her mind, plotting the most strategic course even as the physician continued to argue with her sister.
“It is the only possible cure that I can imagine for this ailment, madam!”
“Yes, and the fact you could turn quite the profit on griffon talons means nothing to you,” Ciara hissed in reply, sharp as a viper. “You are free to leave, good sir. We shan’t trouble you any longer. Be gone!” The man had the audacity to huff as he walked from Kera’s home. He slammed the doors to the Ivory Gate so violently that a stern rebuke was given to him by someone on the road. Kera could hear the chastisement through the bedroom window.
Holding her son’s hand, Kera looked down at his well-loved face. She traced her thumb along the back of his knuckles. She tried to think, but her thoughts kept circling. They kept returning to a question that had haunted her since her husband’s death: What would Mori do?
He was gone now, and she was the leader of this household. She was the Widow Montgomery, and she needed to make this decision. The world expected her to behave as her husband would, and she couldn’t fathom how that might be.
Her sister sat on the other side of Aiden, bed dipping beneath her. Although her presence was calming, Kera couldn’t help but consider the fact that Ciara should not be here. Ciara had children of her own, and a husband besides. A family that needed her and would be devastated by her loss. Aiden only had Kera. There was no one else for him but her. “You should be wary not to catch it as well,” Kera warned. Ciara ignored her.
She stroked her fingers through her nephew’s black hair, watching as he coughed. Kera met her sister’s eyes. Decision already made. Ciara knew it too, her face twisting into a scowl that looked so close to their mother’s it was eerie. “I can have John go,” Ciara said.
“Your husband deferred from the war effort and can barely ride a steed.” Kera said, slow and kind. In all the time Kera had known him, John Barker had simpered and quaked in the face of his far more boisterous and well-spoken wife. Ciara managed him like Mori managed politics: sometimes with skillful words and temperance, and most other times with raging fits of passion that forced his opponents to behave. The idea of him serving as a brave champion riding south to do battle with the griffons was laughable in its own right.
And in any case . . . even if her brother-by-law managed to acquire the goods, he would not be able to return in time to save Aiden. Her son would have expired, and the trip would have been for naught. John would need to take Aiden with him, and Kera would never be able to see her son go and not attend as well. She had to be there with him, so that if he took his last breath, she could be there to give him one last moment of love. She had sat at her husband’s and firstborn’s sides when they died, she would do the same for her youngest.
She would not allow him to die without knowing he was loved. “It should be me,” she said. “I’m his mother. It will be me.”
Ciara stared at her. She looked frozen in time, watching as Kera walked to her closet and retrieved a satchel. Kera knew she would need food and water to start her journey, as well as riding clothe