I prepared a quick bath for Elmiryn. Lethia lent her some extra clothes Daedalus had apparently purchased for her on one of his trips back to town–of everyone, the enchantress was closest to Elmiryn’s build–and within the hour the Fiamman was looking closer to her old self again in a creamy blouse and dark trousers. Her hair was still a wild nest, but she was fed up with all the grooming. I was too, quite frankly. Scissors were starting to look like the only solution to the mess, but just the mention of the idea sent the warrior into a boiling froth. I would have left her to take care of it by that point, except the moment I attempted to storm away, Elmiryn tried to eat a bar of soap.
“But it smells like oatmeal! Isn’t this oatmeal? I’m hungry!” she angrily complained.
After all of that, I helped my companion corral her hair into something resembling a ponytail, and together we ran up the stairs of the tower to see Hakeem. To my relief, the Fanaean was still awake, and he smiled at me as we approached the bed. Quincy sat next to him, and at first she barely glanced at us, but when her eyes set on Elmiryn’s face, she did a double take.
She popped up from her chair, her eyes going wide, “Elmiryn?”
Elmiryn squinted her eyes and pointed at her. “Quincy?” As the wizard laughed and came around the bed to greet her, the redhead leaned toward me and muttered out of the corner of her mouth. “That is her, right?”
“Right,” I whispered back, just as Quincy held out her hand.
“I half expected you to be smeared on some mountainside after coming out of a wrong portal!” Quincy chortled.
“No, no. I never use the wrong holes,” Elmiryn said with a poor attempt at a straight face.
“Are you sure?” Quincy and I asked in unison. We looked at each other, startled. The brunette’s expression became neutral, the warmth she had shown for Elmiryn cooling as her eyes met mine. My shoulders slumped and I looked down at my shoes.
You’re feeling guilty again, Kali informed me.
My jaw clenched. Hush!
Only I didn’t need Kali telling me. Now, seeing how much more amiable Elmiryn was with the others despite her compromised mind, I knew that if I wanted to have a better experience in this group, I was going to have to start with myself.
“Nyx! It is good to see you. The others tell me you ran off to find this one,” Hakeem exclaimed from the bed. He pointed at Elmiryn, his eyebrows rising. “Are you sure you found the right woman?”
The redhead only bared a stiff smile in response. I gave her a small nudge and replied, “No, no. This is Elmiryn, I’m sure of it! Who else can manage to make me fret even more after finding them?”
Hakeem laughed, as did Quincy.
“Of course! I’m just a nuisance,” the warrior said with a shrug, but she still seemed out of sorts and it was making me nervous.
The married couple didn’t seem fazed. Quincy quickly returned to Hakeem’s side, and the Fanaean seemed glad to have her close again, his eyes fixing on her in a disarmingly eager fashion. I blushed a little, feeling all of a sudden like we were intruding.
I coughed and said, “We’ll be off to let you gather your strength, Hakeem.”
He glanced at me and smiled sweetly. “Thank you, Nyx! I’m sure I’ll be joining you and the others downstairs soon. It’ll be nice to talk again.”
I blinked, unsure how to process this saccharine behavior coming from the usually serious man. “Oh…all—all right! Take care then.” When I turned to leave, Elmiryn didn’t go with me. She stayed by Hakeem’s bedside, arms crossed, just scowling.
I tugged at her arm. “Elmiryn, let’s go!” I hissed.
Quincy and Hakeem watched her curiously when her hovering didn’t stop.
“Do you need something?” Asked the brunette archly, while her husband patted her hand.
Elmiryn took her time responding. When she did, it was to say with off-color cheer, “I’m looking forward to seeing Hakeem with us again.”
This earned bemused smiles, and the woman finally allowed me to drag her away.
“What was that?” I whispered heatedly as we descended the stairs. “You were behaving oddly!”
“Don’t I always?” Elmiryn replied mildly.
At the tower foyer I cut her off before she could exit outside. “What I mean was that you were behaving suspiciously! It’s as if you resent Hakeem or something! What’s he possibly done to offend you?”
“I don’t resent Hakeem, and he hasn’t offended me,” Elmiryn said with a solemn expression.
“Then what is it?”
She looked furtively over her shoulder before herding me outside. When we were some ways from the tower entrance, she pointed over her shoulder and hissed, “That? Is not Hakeem.”
I stared at her. “What are you talking about?”
“I mean just what I said. That person we spoke to? I don’t know who or what he is, but that was not the same Hakeem we know!”
“How can that be? Quincy seems convinced!”
“Of course she is! A distraught wife cares for her husband, clinging to him—your words not mine—and suddenly, miraculously, he’s awake!” She threw her hands into the air and looked up in mock worship. “Praise be to the gods!” Elmiryn let her arms fall back to her sides with a slap, “Who on Halward’s plane would be in their right mind to stop and question such a wonderful boon as that?”
I put my hands on my hips and shifted my weight to one foot. “How do you know this isn’t a hallucination of yours?”
“You really want to know?”
I huffed. “I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t!”
Elmiryn gestured around us. “I see the threads in everything. It’s a crazy mess of patterns and colors, energy just fading in and out, weaving and dodging and—look it’s confusing. I don’t entirely get it. But I’ve learned a few patterns. Life? There’s lots of different ways life manifests itself in our world, but the one thing I see living things sharing in common is a kind of thread. Bright, warm, thick. It contains their soul, no matter how simple or complex.” She pointed at the tower again, her voice dropping so low I had to lean in close. “That thing up there? No special thread. That means no soul. That thing is some kind of fucking golem, and now I’ve got to find a way to kill it without getting Quincy after me!”
My eyes were wide. “That can’t be! Things like that can’t exist!”
She arched an eyebrow. “Don’t believe me? Go into that weird dream place you told me about. The one where you can see the universe’s interpretation of everything. Tell me what you see then!”
I pulled away, frowning. Could it be true? Perhaps Hakeem’s behavior had seem out of character to me—a little more gregarious than I remembered—but did that mean he was some demonic construct hell bent on hurting us? It sounded so farfetched. We were back in the realm of the gods. Our gods. Such things weren’t supposed to be possible in their world.
“We’ll see,” I responded as I heard someone coming up the grass behind me. “But please, Elle. I beg of you! Don’t do anything rash without talking to me first!”
Elmiryn didn’t respond save to shake her head. I didn’t know what that meant. No, she wouldn’t talk to me? Or just that she thought I was wasting her time with my caution? Inwardly I heaved a sigh. I had a nasty feeling this was going to turn out badly.
When I turned around, Paulo was standing there. He had the hoodie of his cloak pulled down–which was rare, even in the warm weather–and the runed scars on his chiseled face made him look mean and predatory. Instinctively I tensed, but he had eyes only for Elmiryn.
The warrior stared back at him curiously, and I leaned in to breathe at her, “It’s Paulo.”
Her eyebrows. She looked at me, then back at him. “Damn!”
Paulo crossed his arms and fixed the woman with a guarded look. “Quincy told me about how you both buried my brother. You spoke for him.”
The teenager nodded jerkily, his eyes going to his boots. “Thank you.”
Elmiryn took a deep breath, her eyes closing shut. She reached behind her and pulled out Graziano’s pistol from her belt.
“I suppose Quincy told you I had this to give?” she said quietly.
Paulo’s went very still as his eyes fell on the ornate pistol. With its engraved ivory stock and unique triple barrels, it was unquestionably his brother’s.
“That… I didn’t think you’d bring me that,” Paulo rasped.
Elmiryn held the pistol to the boy, handle first. He gazed at it warily, like it were a viper, before he took the gun.
“Before you try and use that, you should have Quincy look at it,” Elmiryn warned.
Paulo batted his eyes at her. “Why?”
Even I was curious enough to chime in. “Did you sense something, Elle?”
She glanced at me, then looked back at Paulo. “I…I think it’s cursed. I just don’t know how.”
“Cursed?” Paulo repeated with a frown. “But how can you tell?”
“Like Nyx asked, I sensed something.”
“But how?” he pressed stubbornly.
“Just trust her,” I said firmly, before Elmiryn could snap at him. The boy looked at me sharply, and I elaborated with measured calm, “She can see things most can’t. Even if she doesn’t always understand what she sees, it might do to have Quincy’s second opinion!”
Paulo’s face soured, but he nodded.
I gestured out at the field. “You’ve been walking the grounds, right? Have you seen Argos? We didn’t see him when we came in.”
The teenager rolled his eyes as he walked around us toward the tower. “That stupid mutt has started spending more time with Daedalus. I think he and Lethia had a fight or something. The elf and the dog ought to be just behind the tower.”
Daedalus and Argos were indeed behind the tower standing at the elf’s spare part wagon. The man was using the dropped tailgate like a work table, parts and tools spread out on an oilskin. Meanwhile, Argos sat in the wagon bed, attentive to the man’s work. At least he wasn’t chasing gophers anymore.
As we approached, Daedalus folded the oilskin over, concealing his work. He glared at us and remarked, “Is your friend in need of medical aid?”
I looked at Elmiryn, startled. “Um…no?”
He waved us away. “Then begone! I must work in private.”
I pursed my lips and gestured at the elf. “Elmiryn, this is Daedalus. Lethia has known him since she was a child, and he’s since been helping us by getting supplies and providing healing.” Then I added. “Hello Argos.” The dog barked hello, his furry face split in a grin.
“Bah! Healing.” Daedalus spat. “So far, all I’ve done is keep a stubborn girl from accidentally killing herself and smuggled ladies underthings and grain from town.”
Elmiryn nodded at the elf’s makeshift workspace. “You’re pretty busy for a guy who just mules around things.”
“I’m fixing up doors and lantern posts. Hardly essential. I stay because Lethia is headstrong and seems to think there is no consequence for using her enchantment abilities to suppress her own pain.” He clicked his tongue irritably.
Elmiryn grinned. “Did she try bicep curls again?”
Daedalus just clicked his tongue, harder this time.
“So Lethia can really suppress her own pain?” I asked in wonder. It would explain how she could pull off her little stunt with the water bucket and not pass out.
The man gave a terse shake of his head. “That child? Are you mad?” He snorted and glared at the back of the barn. “She thinks she can, just because she read about it in a book, but I know that Syria never would have taught her such a trick until she was nearly complete with her training.” He crossed his arms. “Mark my words. If it weren’t for my continued presence, Lethia Artaud would be passed out in the dirt from trying to lift him!” He thumbed at Argos, who grumbled resentfully.
Elmiryn snickered and I grinned. It was an amusing thought, in a grim way.
But the grin vanished from my face at the thought of the girl actually dying, all because she was pushing herself too hard. Daedalus’ concern wasn’t empty. Just because Lethia could suppress her pain didn’t mean she should. Pain was there to tell us our limits. If she ignored those, she would die.
She’s prepared to die, Kali voiced the thought as it arrived.
My throat tightened as I turned to Elmiryn. “Elle, now that we’ve caught you up with everyone, will you be all right to look around for a bit on your own? Or you could wait for me in my room in the tower. It’s just…. I need to do something alone.”
Her eyes searched my face, her brow tensing but not quite forming a frown. She gave a slight nod. “I’ll be all right.”
I smiled thinly and lifted my hand as if to touch her arm. When my hand touched her, my stomach clenched, and I pulled away, trying to pass it off as a casual pat when it clearly wasn’t.
“Take care, Elmiryn.” I said as I walked away.
When I was out of earshot I cursed under my breath.
That sounded too much like a goodbye.
The afternoon was waning, and the crimson pine grosbeak that had taken to resting in the dead linden tree outside of the barn was sleepily chirping for its unseen compatriots. The sky was turning warm, the suns inching closer to the evening angle. They made my shadow long–stretching deep enough into the barn that it hit the back wall even as I stood at the entrance. I hesitated, feeling my body tense. If Lethia was asleep, she wouldn’t have seen that.
“Who’s there? Paulo, is that you?”
I rolled my eyes shut. Of course.
“It’s me, Lethia,” I said wearily as I stepped further inside.
When I stopped at her stall, I leaned on the partition and lifted my hand in greeting. The enchantress was resting in her hay bed, just as we left her. She gazed up at me bemusedly as she set aside what looked like a leather journal and a charcoal pencil.
“Oh! I wasn’t expecting to see you again today.”
I scratched my cheek. “I wasn’t expecting to be here either.” Then my tongue stopped. I didn’t know what else to say.
What was I even intending on doing here, again?
Lethia shrugged a little. “Can I…help you?”
I stared down at her. “Help me?” I repeated after a long moment.
“I just meant there’s a reason you’re here, right?”
“And that reason is…?” she trailed off expectantly.
I glared at her, irritated. “Am I bothering you? Did I interrupt something?”
Lethia blinked at me. “Nyx, that isn’t–”
“You said I should tell you what it is that you could do to help make amends, right?”
“Then is this a bad time? Because I feel–” and I broke off with a huff, pushing away from the stall to pace in front of it. I pressed the heels of my palms into my eyes. “I’m sorry,” I mumbled. “I’m sorry. I didn’t come for a fight. I really didn’t.”
I heard Lethia get up and stopped my back and forth to glare at the dirt.
I looked at her reluctantly. Lethia looked worried, but I could see the reservation in her, like she wasn’t sure she should trust that I wouldn’t hurt her.
I wasn’t sure either.
“I want you to listen,” I bit out. “I think…I’ve realized…” I growled and pinched the bridge of my nose. “I feel like no one understands what I’m feeling, all right? I hate it. I hate being misunderstood. I learned all those fancy words so that I could convey deeper thoughts, and it seems like they just made it worse. Now even I get confused about the exact reasons why I feel the way I do. But I figure I have an idea. I mean, I have ideas. Isn’t that what we all are in reality? Just a collection of ideas? Ideas can contradict, can’t they?”
Lethia nodded, but I got the impression it was more out of politeness than true understanding. I buried my hands in my hair and tugged hard. “I feel so much anger toward you, Lethia! Do you see? I feel sick with it! But then there’s this other part that still remembers what a good person you are, and it tries to reconcile what happened between us, but it just can’t.”
The girl closed her eyes. “You mean that time with Izma.”
“Yes!” I snarled. I jabbed a finger at the teenager’s face. “She hurt me! You hurt me! Taunting me with my feelings till I felt empty inside! There are many things I doubt in this world, Lethia, but my feelings for Elmiryn had been one of the first things in my life that I felt entirely certain of! Now? I feel horrible about it all!” I turned my face away, my fists clenching. “When I found Elmiryn out in the wilderness days ago, I couldn’t…I just I couldn’t open up. I’ve been struggling to feel like things are normal, but they aren’t, and I wonder if my feelings had ever been true at all now? What if I was just led by lust like how my mother lusted after every man in our village? That’s my legacy, isn’t it?”
Lethia was staring at me wide eyed now. “Nyx that’s absurd!”
I laughed bitterly. “Is it?”
She shook her head at me. “Yes! Quite frankly, I’m disappointed that someone as smart as you would allow yourself to get caught up with such an idea! Are you your mother, Nyx? What possible reason do you have to–”
Lethia broke off when she saw the look on my face. Drawn. Pale.
“You…. You really don’t know, do you?” I whispered, feeling the tears burn my eyes.
The girl started to say something, then faltered. Finally, she murmured. “No. Izma took complete control after your outburst about your father. I wasn’t there for any of it.”
All this time I’ve been punishing her, treating her poorly…
I sat on the ground, right there and then. My vision clouded. I heard Lethia kneel in front of me.
“Nyx, tell me. Tell me what happened.”
I shook my head, gripping it, pulling my knees up to curl into a ball. “No, I don’t want to!” My voice was small. Child-like.
I’d avoided thinking about that horrible moment all this time. I didn’t want to dredge up the painful details, and I especially didn’t want to tell someone else. It was almost like going through the whole thing again.
But I’d been holding on to this for close to weeks now, and it was eating me alive. I thought having Elmiryn back would make it better. If the last few days were any indication, I was about to feel a lot worse. Could I bury it down inside forever? When would the feeling of violation and shame go away? I could talk to Kali about it–but even given our new kinship, she was hardly a great conversation partner. Who else could I talk to? When?
Lethia bit her lip before saying softly, “If you aren’t ready, then you aren’t ready. I just want you to know that I’m always–”
“Izma showed me Elmiryn!” I blurted, looking up at the enchantress.
She stared at me in shock, and I mirrored her expression. I hadn’t expected to speak. I was teetering over the edge, but I could have just as likely clammed up and said nothing. Pulling me the other way, though, had been the idea that this was like any difficult thing a person faced. You did it one step at a time.
Lethia winced as she gingerly moved to sit on her bottom. When she was settled across from me, she pulled her knees up to her chest like I did and wrapped her one arm around them.
“And what was Elmiryn doing when you saw her?” she asked mildly, like she was aware I was ready to jump up and run out of there at the first loud noise.
One step at a time, one step at a time, one step at a time–
“Waiting.” I croaked. Then inwardly berated myself.
One step at a time, cajeck, not one word at a time!
“Take your time, Nyx,” Lethia reassured me.
I took a deep shuddering breath. After a long moment passed, I said next. “It was a simulation. Izma said…said it was a collection of Elmiryn’s memories, tweaked and reconstructed into one moment. So it wasn’t really her, and it wasn’t even a real memory, but…”
“It still felt real,” Lethia supplied when my silence stretched on.
I nodded mutely.
“So she was waiting. What was she waiting for?”
I swallowed at the rock in my throat. “A noble woman.” My jaw clenched. “For the purposes of that exercise, Izma saw it fit to put me in her position, so that Elmiryn spoke to me as if I was this other person.”
And I told her the rest. It took a long time. At one point, I couldn’t speak, I was crying so hard that Lethia let me lay in her hay bed. I felt guilty, taking a one-armed girl’s place of rest, but she insisted, and I was so distraught I didn’t have the strength to argue.
When I finished, I felt spent. My head had somehow found its way to Lethia’s lap, and she stroked my hair. Toward the end, she’d been crying too.
“Oh Nyx!” she whispered, anguish evident on her face. “What a horrible thing to have gone through!”
I covered my face with my hands. “But you didn’t know! And I treated you horribly!”
“You had every right to be angry! Heavens, you still have the right! Aware or not, I should have known that Izma would cross such lines when I agreed to help her!”
I sat up and shrugged. “What difference does it make? Izma told me the truth. I would let Elmiryn use me if it meant I felt wanted. She doesn’t love me now, imagine when she finally gets tired of me, or finds someone else? I’d still roll over for her if I could be with her, even just for that moment. I’d let anyone do that–”
“You would not, Nyx!” Lethia argued hotly.
I shook my head and stared morosely at my lap. My eyes felt raw and swollen, my nose still running with snot.
Lethia grabbed my hand and squeezed it, craning around so that she was looking up into my face. “You have got to stop thinking this way!” Then she bit her lip and said more apprehensively, “I know you told me to never speak to you about your mother, and I’m sorry I came across my knowledge of her in the way that I did, but you have to understand–you two are nothing alike! Your mother was a good woman who had difficulty facing the fact that she was getting old and the man she loved had left her! Her behavior was an addiction born out of a poor ability to cope! But you? You’re a resilient, practical, and self-aware young woman who has been through hell and back!”
“What are you talking about? I’m none of those things! I throw tantrums like a child, and I get confused by my constant second guessing! And I’m only resilient if you’re referring to my healing ability!”
“Dear gods, your cognitive distortions are immense! Are you opening your legs for every person who walks by? Of course not!”
I raised an eyebrow at her and mumbled wryly, “Who would I open my legs to? Daedalus looks down on me, Paulo and Quincy dislike me, Hakeem has been in a coma up until now, and I’m fairly certain you aren’t interested!”
Lethia actually thought about that before snickering out, “There’s always Argos!”
I gave her a horrified look. “Lethia!”
“Listen, my point is that you aren’t a naturally promiscuous person. Your sentiment that you would be with Elmiryn under any circumstances, no matter how she treated you, is simply due to the fact that your feelings for her are coupled with your fears of losing her–and I stress the word sentiment because you can’t actually know what you would do should Elmiryn abuse you in such a way until she does so! Now, pardon my frankness–”
“You want me to pardon just this one instance?”
“But you haven’t had relations with Elmiryn since you’ve found her, have you?”
I blushed, suddenly becoming interested in picking the hay out of my hair.
Lethia nodded knowingly. “Exactly. Not that your trauma is something to celebrate, but it goes completely against your assertions about yourself! All that said, I’d be more concerned about finding a way to overcome the apprehension you feel around Elmiryn instead of finding ways to villify yourself!”
When she was done, I stared at her hard, then remarked. “How much would that have cost if I had been some villager seeking guided healing?”
“A hundred gold,” Lethia said readily. She shrugged one shoulder at my smirk. “What? You think just because I was a journeyman, Syria didn’t give me patients to tend?”
My eyes narrowed in suspicion as a thought occurred to me. “If you charged a hundred, what did she charge?”
The girl pouted. “You realize Syria took on many charity cases, right?”
“Right. I’ll remember to admire the magnanimity of a lunatic later. Lethia, what did she charge?”
“Five thousand!” She snapped. At my astonished look, she looked away. “Give or take,” she mumbled.
“Who can afford so much?” I sputtered. “People could live for years off of that!”
“Politicians, nobles, royalty…. Syria was famous after all! She tended to very important people!”
I shook my head in disbelief. “Sweet Aelurus!”
Lethia glanced at me sideways. “Did I ever mention that I visited Lekeid?”
My eyes went wide. “No! I thought you spent most of your time here at the tower?”
Lethia grinned shyly. “I’ve traveled on three occasions. Nothing beyond the Sibesonan continent, but–”
And Lethia told me of her travels, relating of a short-lived romance with an elven noble in Lekeid, and the time she got to play with Cailean, the Fiamman princess. It wasn’t that listening to her talk took the pain away. It lurked deep inside, waiting for that quiet moment when it could assail my heart again. Lethia’s kind voice kept it at bay, and for the first time in weeks, I felt almost normal again.