The king turns to Hazel. “Could you join my wife and your daughter for a moment?” he asks. “I have to speak with Vark alone.”
I want to tell him that Hazel can hear anything he has to say to me, but before I can stop her, she gives me a shy smile that sends my blood rushing to my cock and darts out of the room. I clear my throat and will my reaction to her to subside before facing Gorvor again.
He watches me with a slight smirk on his face. “How are you holding up, my friend?”
“Never better,” I say.
“That is good to hear,” he says. Then his expression grows grim. “I have to tell you something. There has been a development with my brother since you left for Ultrup.”
I clasp my hands together behind my back. “What is it?”
I wish Hazel was here to bear the news with me, whatever it is. The king’s younger brother, Charan, hadn’t caused the attack that left me blind in one eye, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t responsible for it.
“He has been asking about you,” the king says. “He would like to make amends, I think. I haven’t told him anything about you, because it’s not my place. He only knows one of my warriors got injured in the attack.”
I give him a curt nod. “Thank you.”
“The thing is…” The king scratches the back of his neck. “As much as I want to punish him for being an ass, that’s not actually against any of our laws. He came here to snoop around and be a nuisance, but he wasn’t the one who came up with the plan to kidnap and kill Dawn.”
Now that I’ve found my mate, I cannot imagine what Gorvor must have felt when he’d realized that Dawn had been taken from the Hill. The hours of uncertainty while searching for her—that must have been a torture worse than any physical wound a warrior could endure.
“You want to let him go?” I ask.
The king gives a curt nod. “But I won’t if you ask me not to. You lost the most in that attack in the end.”
If he’s willing to forgive his brother for the role he played in that plot, how can I hold a grudge? He’s right, too. It wasn’t Charan who cooked up the betrayal. In fact, I’d heard that he’d tried to convince his men to return Dawn to the Hill before it was too late.
“What does Dawn think about it?” I ask finally.
“Dawn thinks I should try and mend things between Charan and me,” Gorvor says with a grimace. “She says we should talk.”
I press my lips together to hide a smile. I can imagine how well that conversation must have gone. I glance at the half-closed door to the queen’s chamber, and something loosens inside me as I let go of my grudge against the Boar Clan prince.
I face the king and say, “I agree. You should release him.”
The king lifts his dark eyebrows. “You do? I thought you would be the first to call for his blood.”
I snort. “Well, I don’t want to be his best friend and braid his hair. But if I hadn’t been injured, I’d still be part of the queen’s guard. I wouldn’t have been in Ultrup with Ozork’s caravan, and I wouldn’t have met Hazel and Wren. I may have lost an eye, but I found my family.”
The door to the other room opens, and Wren comes bouncing out, her grin infectious. Hazel follows, looking at me tentatively, and I nod at her to say that the conversation is over. Wren hops over to my side and shows me a goose feather quill she’s holding very carefully.
“Miss Dawn gave it to me,” she informs me. “She said there was a school for all the children who live in the Hill, and that I could learn my letters there.”
I crouch next to her, admiring the quill. “Is that something you’d like?”
“I think so,” she says, considering. “But I also want to help you with the animals. I like to be around horses.” She gazes right up at the king, ridiculously small next to the orc warrior. “I heard a nest of mice in the kitchen. They’re afraid to come out because the maids try to smash them with pans.”
The king blinks. “They’re afraid?”
“Yes,” Wren says. “I think it’s not nice to scare creatures who are smaller than you.”
Dawn walks over to her mate and puts her hand in his. “Wren asked for permission to relocate the mice to the forest. They could live there and not bother the maids anymore.”
The king seems somewhat confused at this but nods anyway. “You have my permission to do that.”
“Thank you,” Wren says and dips into a small curtsy.
King Gorvor stares at me, then at Hazel, likely wondering how Wren knew about the mice. I don’t explain—not right now, with Wren right here. She’s had enough turmoil for several days, and there will be time for revealing secrets later.
Right now, I’d like nothing more than to take my beautiful mate and daughter to my room. But there’s one more thing I have to discuss with the king. I wrap my arm around Hazel’s shoulders and say, “I have a request of my own to ask of you.”
A light kindles in Gorvor’s eyes. “Are you ready to resume your duty? We would be happy to have you back in the ranks.”
I smile slightly. “Not exactly. I’ll never regain the same skill I had when I could see with both eyes.” I point at my eye patch and say what’s bothered me the most these past months since my injury. “I wouldn’t want to put the other warriors in danger by going out if I’m not at my best.”
“You’re still a better warrior than—” the king starts to say, but Dawn puts a hand on his arm, stopping him.
“Let him say his part,” she murmurs. “I don’t think he’s rejecting you again.”
The king looks sheepish. “Forgive me,” he says.
“Your mate is right, as always.” I wink at Dawn and ignore Gorvor’s low growl. “I wanted to say that by teaching Hazel, I realized the work I’ve done to train as a warrior so far needn’t go to waste.”
Here, I pause and glance down at Hazel. It’s her willingness to accept me that has brought me to this moment. I couldn’t have done it without her. I take a deep breath and add, “I would like to help Orsha train the younglings. She has been complaining for years—”
“That we all want to run around, getting into fights, and no one but her is there to make sure warriors know enough not to get killed,” Gorvor finishes for me.
“Aye,” I agree. “We’d need to talk to her first, of course, ask if she’ll tolerate me in her training rings. But I wanted to clear it with you.”
The king claps me on the shoulder, his hand heavy. “That is a splendid idea.”
I place a hand on Hazel’s back, stroking my thumb up and down. She shivers slightly, then frowns up at me, her cheeks tinged pink. I wink at her, then focus back on the king.
“There’s something else,” I say. “I would like to keep my mate close, which I’m sure you understand.”
He clears his throat. “I do.”
“I think Hazel could work in the armory. It’s a mess, and she’s good with knives.” I nudge her forward slightly. “Aren’t you?”
“What are you doing?” She glares at me. “You’re making me sound like a murderer.”
Dawn laughs. “Oh, you’ll see quickly that in this place, being good with knives is a respected skill. They’ll love you in the fighting rings.”
“I think that would work out very well,” Gorvor says. “If you are amenable to that, Hazel?”
“I am, my lor—I mean, of course,” she stammers, gaze darting to me.
We take our leave, but when we step out into the corridor, I remember something else.
“Wait for me a moment,” I tell Hazel and dart back into the royal chambers.
The king has sat in the chair by his desk, and his mate is curled up on his lap. Gorvor glowers at me for interrupting them, but I only grin in response. No amount of frowning can sour my mood today.
“What is it?” he barks.
“I want to tell Hazel about the gold vein,” I say, keeping my voice down. “She is worried about Wren’s future, and I don’t want to lie to her to explain where all my money is coming from.”
One of the reasons our realm is so prosperous, apart from having a rational, kind king, is the gold vein at the heart of the Hill, the one we mine carefully in order to keep the treasure for generations to come. It’s a secret every orc here will die to protect if needed, but I know the king has told Dawn about it, and I want to let Hazel in on it, too.
Not to brag—or to buy her with promises—but to reassure her that she never need worry about going without again. She’d been forced to fight for her survival most of her life, and I want to make sure she has every comfort she needs now.
“Do you trust her?” Gorvor asks.
His gaze is frank, his demeanor serious, so I answer in kind.
It’s true. I would never gamble with the fate of our clan’s resources, but I know deep in my heart that Hazel will keep our secret well.
“All right, then,” Gorvor says. “Once she is settled in and you have moved to your new rooms, we’ll make a trip to the mine.”
I nod in thanks and leave, meeting Hazel and Wren in the corridor. We make our slow way through the maze of tunnels, and I point out various twists and turns, even though I know it will take them a while to get used to the place. Wren walks behind us, carrying that feathered quill as if it’s the most precious thing in the world. I will make it my life’s mission to ensure she is happy here, that she finds friends among the orc children and thrives like she was always meant to.
Then we arrive at the door to my room. I push it open and walk inside first to light the two lanterns hanging on the walls. For the first time in a very long while, I consider the space, a single room with earthen walls and rounded ceiling, as if a large bubble of air got trapped underground. It’s sparsely furnished, and I wonder how Hazel sees it. My most powerful memories of being here are the ones when I’d been in so much pain, recovering from my injury, that I’d started to loathe the bed I lay in, and even the simple pieces of furniture because they were the only view I got to see for weeks on end.
But Wren darts into the room, past me, and jumps on the bed, bouncing with a happy giggle.
“Wren,” Hazel reprimands, walking up to her. “Take your boots off at least. And your coat, it smells like horses.”
I stare, my chest tight, as the bare room suddenly transforms in front of my eyes, and grows into so much more than just the place I’ve slept over the years.
It becomes a home.
Wordlessly, I close the door behind us, shutting us in. Tomorrow, we’ll likely move to another room, but it won’t matter—because home is where these two are with me. We’ll sort out Wren’s bed, as well as clothes for both of them. For tonight, we’ll make do with the blankets and pillows already in here, because I don’t want anyone intruding on this perfect happiness.
Hazel looks up and sees me staring at them. She asks Wren to take off her boots again, then walks over to me and places her warm hands on my chest.
“Everything all right?” she asks quietly.
I never thought I’d find a mate on a trip I saw as punishment for my mistakes, but life has a way of turning out the way it was meant to.
I nod and press a kiss to Hazel’s forehead. “Aye. Everything’s perfect, pet.”
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