I do have a bloody choice. Fuck nobility. Fuck selflessness. This isn't my life. He would turn his back just like before. I want to run with her.
Cade could find another way to free Rydstrom from Sabine. Then his brother would finally just have to learn how to live without his crown.
Rök said, "I'm not suggesting that you should actually turn Holly over."
"If I even bring her near Groot, I risk her life. I can't jeopardize her like this. I won't - "
"Look, I didn't want to tell you this, but there's more on the line than you think. News of Rydstrom's disappearance and your quest has gotten out. Demons in the kingdom are awaiting your results. Cade, they're ready to war again."
"What do you mean?" Their people had been so brutalized that they had no heart for revolutions.
"If you can claim that sword, they'll view it as a sign that a revolt could be possible. The sword has become symbolic now, a rallying point. They want to see that if one half of the Woede is compromised, the other can still take care of business, as it were."
As if there weren't enough pressure...
"And I have to tell you - the betting's rampant over whether the black sheep will come through. So here's the strategy: You'll have to convince Groot that you're only there to drop off the goods, get your pay in return, and get out, or he won't give the sword to you. So convince him, then smite him with his own weapon."
"Do you know how many things can go wrong with that plan?"
"All right, say he gets suspicious and has his guards escort you out," Rök said. "You'll be able to go fully demonic now, changing to protect your female. In that state you could take on an army. You'd be able to get her out of there."
Act like I'm making the trade, get the sword, kill Groot - it sounded so easy. "And if any of this goes south, Holly's going to be the one to pay for it," Cade said, scrubbing a hand over his face. "You would do this in my position?"
"You shouldn't ask me. I can't really comprehend what you're feeling for her that would make you even think about choosing her over a kingdom of people - much less over your brother's life."
Cade had been born to protect her, and yet he was considering placing her directly in harm's way. He was debating the ultimate betrayal.
To persuade Groot that this was merely one business transaction among many, Cade would have to act like a callous mercenary. One who'd tricked a naïve young woman.
Which was true in many ways.
Rök added, "Since your exile, you haven't returned to Rothkalina, but I have. It's...not good. There are a lot of people counting on you."
Cade swallowed. Now, at last, after all these years, is my chance to atone.
"Rydstrom's counting on you, too. Right now your brother's somewhere secretly praying that you'll come through. Even as he's certain you won't."
Unbidden, a memory arose in Cade's mind of a night so long ago - a night of anguish and guilt, of pain as he'd never known.
When Cade had been burying his foster family, Rydstrom had found him. Without a word, he'd taken up another shovel. Shoulder to shoulder, they'd worked together.
Cade had just cost Rydstrom his throne, and yet his brother had silently helped him get through the hardest thing Cade had ever had to do....
When Cadeon returned, he stretched out behind Holly, wrapping his warm, naked body around hers.
He tucked her tightly against him as he always did. Outside, the winds howled down from the Arctic, whipping over their cabin, but she felt so safe, protected by her big demon.
She couldn't imagine ever sleeping without him again. Before she drifted off, she thought, I'm in love with Cadeon Woede.
They'd started out early in the morning, speaking little over the first couple of hours they'd been slogging north.
"What's wrong?" Cade finally asked her. "You've been quiet." He wondered if she suspected anything. She'd been wary of him in the past. But he sensed that she'd jumped in with both feet with him, deciding to trust him completely.
Which would make this all the more devastating to her.
"I'm just sad to leave," she said. "Maybe we can hole up here for another week on the way down? You can teach me to ice fish."
With his eyes averted, he said, "Yeah, maybe so. Did Nïx ever give you a way to contact her?"
"Wouldn't mind some Monday morning quarterbacking, except in advance." His gut was tied in knots as he wondered if this was the right move. Was there a right move? At any turn, Cade would fail someone. It felt wrong to deceive and hurt Holly, wrong to risk his brother's freedom, wrong to ignore the needs of an entire kingdom.
He could already see the betrayed look on Holly's face. Would he be able to keep up the charade of indifference, when he wanted her more than he'd wanted anything in his entire life...?
Whatever road there had been initially deteriorated into a primitive trail as the terrain grew more mountainous. Every few miles, Cade had to drag trees out of their way.
He'd cut this journey so close that anything could set them back. Part of him wished they would miss the deadline, hoping for something, anything, that would prevent him from having to turn her over - to take the matter out of his hands, so it wouldn't be his decision either way.
Then Cade would think of his brother, and the guilt would assail him.
Holly perked up. After hours of grueling four-wheel driving deeper into the mountains, the trail had finally begun improving.
By the time it actually resembled a road, the dense forest of spruce opened up into a small valley.
It was just before two, which meant that the sun hadn't yet set, so they were able to see some of the spectacular scenery. A whitewater river etched its way through the valley. Mist swirled above them, like a gossamer lid over all.
Cadeon leaned forward on the steering wheel. "This area should be bare, the river frozen."
Instead birch and aspen trees still had their leaves, and there was not a single patch of snow.
"Maybe it has its own microclimate? I've read that hot springs can melt the area around them."
"Yeah, that's probably it," he said, but he was distracted.
They followed the road as it ran parallel to the river. "Look, it's a little town," Holly said, then frowned. "A ghost town." And she didn't use that term lightly anymore.
"It's an old coal mining village. I saw the entrance to a shaft a while back. Groot must have set up here so he could have fuel for his forge."
They passed a startlingly well-preserved sign that read: Prosperity, NWT, est. 1902, pop. 333.