Beautiful Salvation
defense was there to offer? The evidence of his failure was all around them.
     
    “Etienne, a little tact? Honestly, and you were raised as a prince.”
     
    “Yes, I was, Adonis, and that’s why I know that it’s the responsibility of the king to see that his land is protected, nurtured.” Anger warmed Etienne’s voice as he faced Saamal. “This—”
     
    “Exactly, it’s the king’s job.” Adonis put himself between Etienne and Saamal. Even without his horns and wings, the demon was a few inches taller than Etienne, and he drew himself up to his full height as he stared hard at the werewolf. “Saamal is the prince, not the king, Etienne.”
     
    It had been a long time since Saamal had even considered explaining himself to anyone, had even needed to explain the way his kingdom worked. He could hardly fault Adonis for not knowing. After all, he did not come from a kingdom that had been created with flesh and blood. He did not know how closely Saamal was tied to this land.
     
    “Adonis, your defense is appreciated, but unfortunately undeserved.” Saamal pivoted slowly in a semi circle, forcing himself to face his once thriving land, to see the ruin that had come to it, feel it. The dull ache in the back of his head that never went away, grew in intensity. “I am the prince of this land by virtue of betrothal to the king’s daughter.” He lowered his voice. “By blood, I am the king.”
     
    “You’re what?” Etienne and Adonis spoke in unison.
     
    Saamal smiled, though the sentiment did not reflect his heart. “I am the supreme ruler of this kingdom, tied to the land by flesh, blood, and magic. I created this world. Every king who wishes to rule, shares his blood with me, and I with him. At the coronation ritual, the king spills his blood onto the land as an offering, a binding. He ties himself to the land that he claims rulership over so that he may prosper only as the land prospers, and he will suffer as the land suffers. It is our agreement, our bond, that allows the land to thrive.”
     
    Both Etienne and Adonis glanced around as they listened to the last part, and a bitter laugh escaped Saamal. “What you see around you is a result of my own foolishness. After I gave the balam half my power to curb the curse laid on my future bride, it put my Aiyana into a deep sleep that we did not know when she would wake from. The balam worried that Aiyana would be distressed to wake with no one she knew around her, whether because those she’d known had aged to a point she did not recognize them, or because they had died and been replaced. I was foolish, led by the balam into thinking of the individual instead of the whole for the first time in my existence. I allowed her to put the rest of the castle to sleep, so that they might wake at the same time Aiyana wakes.”
     
    “The king,” Etienne guessed.
     
    Saamal nodded grimly. “As the king went to sleep, his vitality stopped feeding the land. Since the holy men were part of the castle’s population as well, there was also no one left to oversee the sacrifices. Without the sustenance it was the king’s duty to provide, the earth suffered until it is as you see it now.” He looked across the land, unable to swallow past the lump in his throat. “Barren.”
     
    “Did you say…sacrifice?” Adonis’ eyes bored into Saamal’s, a strange emotion flickering in the brief sparks of cinnamon in the hazel depths. “What kind of sacrifice?”
     
    Saamal met the demon’s eyes without flinching. “There is much you do not know about my kingdom. Do not judge when you do not understand.”
     
    There was a strained silence, emphasized rather than broken by the wind through the brittle briars. Saamal could feel the weight of Etienne’s scrutiny on him as well, but he didn’t take his eyes from Adonis. This was it. This was the time he would find out if he could believe Eurydice, if he could believe that he was no longer alone in his quest to wake

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