“Everyone, through the portal!” Nerida yells, and though I push myself up, I stumble, my limbs heavy with exhaustion and pain. I stare at the shadow clad ground beneath me, which seems to twist around my boots, holding me, pulling me back toward it. Stay, it insists, its so much easier to just rest… No! No, I can’t… I have to go back home, have to hold my sons, let them meet their aunt! I have to keep going, I can’t rest yet… I straighten up, taking just one step, which feels like I am dragging the weight of a thousand people on my ankles.
Every movement is torture as the cold shadow of Elysia pulls at me, the sunlight visible just beyond the gate, but somehow… so unreachable. I feel Alix’s hand tighten on mine, my fingers closing over his – one less for our endeavors today, but a small price to pay. It urges me on, and I pull my gaze up to meet his, finding hope shining back at me through those storm gray eyes, true, genuine hope.
“Let’s go home, little one,” he whispers, and I nod, fighting back tears as I cling to his arm – home, family… two words I never thought could mean more to me than they already did. I stumble through the portal, Byss’ warm sun washing us in its rays, seeming to push back the wretched, grasping shadows of Elysia that hung over me. The moment my boots hit the grass, I fall to it, plush green catching me as I stare up at a sky – so big, so blue, so beautiful.
So many afternoons I’d spent, lying in Alix’s arms staring up at this very same sky… I look at my hand, Alix’s blood smeared across it from his sacrifice, and then up at him, but his gaze is fixated elsewhere – on Agorran, and his sister. For a second, I think I catch a glimpse of tears on his pale skin before he moves to embrace them and his face disappears from view. Sitting up, I watch them for a moment, Agorran’s smile so genuine, and yet… so cautious, as though he is waiting to be woken from yet another dream.
I know the feeling too well… how many nights had I laid in bed with Alix, certain any moment I would wake in the cold streets of my old home town alone? How many times had I pinched myself, or let Seren go on pulling my hair until it hurt just to be sure he and Rhapsody were real? And my victories, while new, were not so far-fetched as this one. I want to reach out to them, embrace them, assure them it was true – we’d beaten down another impossible nightmare, we’d emerged victorious, that everything could, just maybe, actually be alright, but it seems… wrong, somehow, to intrude on their moment together.
The gate to Elysia closes behind us, for what I pray is the final time, and I look around at my companions – Nerida, Ulkair, Alix… what could I ever hope to be without them? Even Aadya, whom I barely knew, she’d saved Alix twice now, and me, and… were it not for her and Tubatron’s intervention, I would have failed them all in Elysia. Loin cradles Selene’s body to his chest, Caspian nurses her wounds, Nerida and Ulkair take a seat on either side of me, and for a moment, all is quiet, the stillness only broken by the breeze rolling through the grass. We won.
My words echo into Alix’s thoughts, and back again, his voice almost more disbelieving than my own. I look back at him, and think to say something, but can’t seem to muster the words, or the will to pull him from his family, who he’d only just regained.
The words strike a painful chord in my heart, and as I watch their prolonged embrace, I feel tears burning at the edges of my eyes. But… why? This should be a joyous moment, our greatest victory, and yet… these don’t feel like happy tears.
He doesn’t need you anymore.
A voice taunts, creeping its way up from the darkest reaches of my mind to gnaw at my sanity.
That’s not true! I spit back, and it silences, but leaves an aching sore on my heart in its wake.
“Cheshire, what’s wrong?” Nerida asks, pulling my attention from Alix’s moment of somber celebration.
“What? I.. um, nothing,” I shake my head, reaching up to rub my eyes. “I just… think I’m still shaking off the last of the negative… um, energy, I guess.”
Right. Elysia, the negative plane, the shadows… that’s all that was. I assure myself, wrapping my arms around my knees as Nerida and Ulkair snuggle in closer, determined to keep at bay my demons, if only for now. My mind reels with the events in Elysia, and I hardly notice Loin approaching us until I am staring at his boots.
“So, Nerida, Selene’s soul… is in your jar, yes?” He asks, and Nerida nods, leaving me to suppose that I missed her collecting it in the flurry of battle, but it only makes sense that she did. That dark plane was no place for an innocent soul.
“Yes,” she answers, “why?”
“Can you… tell if the soul is whole, by any chance?” Loin asks, and then his brow knits heavily, and he continues his explanation, but lets his words trail off. “It occurred to me during the fight she’d been with demons for a very long time, and…”
Nerida takes the jar from her side, opening it and taking something into her hand – I imagine it to be Selene’s soul, and that were I to focus all my holiness, I could perhaps see it, but the effort to simply lift my head is too great, and the strain of the attempt would be pointless, as Nerida’s expertise would be insurmountably more useful than whatever guess I could make.
“They probably kept parts of it to help control her,” Nerida explains sadly, making it more than apparent the soul is not, in fact, whole as she passes it to Ulkair for observation.
“Or to fuel these monstrosities they’re creating,” I whisper, and try to hide the grimace on my features as I remember Aisylynn’s soul, what it had looked like, the torture, the screaming… and that demon had her for only nine days, and no greater purpose than malice and spite, who knows to what end they had taken apart Selene?
“Or… just to abuse…”
I bite my lip, cutting short my words and my train of thought – such misery could do Loin no good, and there was plenty on his shoulders as it was. Ulkair observes the soul, turning it over in his hands, though what he is looking for, I am unsure.
“These don’t look like violent tears or even… bites,” he concludes, which I hope is a good thing, but doubt, “this separation was precision work. Only the wizards of Thay or the most powerful of demons could do this.”
“Is there any way it can be…. Restored now?” Loin asks, staring sadly at his lover’s body for a moment before looking back to Ulkair, “or do we need the actual pieces of the soul?”
“You need the pieces of the soul,” Ulkair answers, shaking his head. “This is likely why she was so distant and uncaring of… certain things that should have been important to her. You could substitute something for it, but there is no… wound to bandage, no way to heal it without what is missing. And it will never be the way it was, unless you find the other pieces.”
“What about… another soul?” Loin asks, and Ulkair gives him a knowing look.
“It would be a powerful gift, and a huge sacrifice. Neither of you will ever be exactly the same again,” he says, but looks at Nerida, meeting her eyes with a soft smile, “but that’s not always a bad thing.”
Loin does not seem to think this warning to be anything of concern, he simply nods, certain of the choice he has made, with no hesitation or weighing of options.
“I’m already not the same.”
I feel my stomach twist at his words – Loin can’t lose his soul, not even half of it, or small pieces, he can’t afford it. It would be a thousand steps back for every one that he’s taken on this path of… growth, or… vengeance, or discovery, whatever it was anymore. I remember the look in Selene’s eyes when I’d questioned her – cold, devoid, nothing but spite and horror burning in them, and I shudder to recall when I’d seen the very same in Loin’s. When I’d thought him so far gone that nothing would reach him, and he’d only lost his mind then, not his soul.
“Loin… Don’t take this the wrong way, but,” I begin cautiously, peering up at him just in time to catch a look in his eye that insisted he would, and I steel myself for the plunge. There is no point in hiding or mincing words, I remind myself, a good leader can’t be afraid to speak to their enemies, nonetheless their family.
He will take my advice or he will not.
“Its just that, supposedly not having these pieces of her soul are what made her so…. Distant, and… so cold. And in the meantime while we search for hers, all those pieces are missing from you. Can you… really afford that?”
He stares at me, hard, and I wonder if I haven’t perhaps crossed a line – but it needed to be said, and who else would, if not me? Who else knew, who else could use that guilt to make him see sense? I break our eye contact as Mimi approaches to put in her two cents – something I’m never sure will be a good thing or not anymore.
“I think it should be Selene’s choice,” she says, a surprisingly neutral and inoffensive opinion.
It doesn’t take long for this to break into a debate that is well above the level of interest I am capable of putting forth, and I find my mind, and my eyes, wandering back to Alix as he breaks his embrace with Agorran, and the two of them help his sister to her feet. She looks just like him, if he were maybe twenty years younger and less world-weary, and I’ve never seen such genuine disbelief or happiness on Alix’s face. For what I am certain is the first time since our link was forged, the overwhelming emotion seeping over it is not mine. Alix is happy. So truly, incredibly happy.
The sharp claws of jealousy rake through my mind once more, insisting his happiness means he no longer needs me, and I clench my fists at my side.
That’s not true.
I repeat, but pain still ripples through my chest with every quickening heartbeat as the three of them turn away, making their way, I can only imagine, toward the temple. Alix’s sister leans heavily on Agorran, clearly exhausted, but my mind races with painful memories as I watch their retreating forms, and I scramble to my feet, wiggling free of Nerida and Ulkair’s hold to hurry after them. I jog the distance between us, so desperate to put a nail in the coffin of my awful thoughts that I forget my earlier decision not to intrude, and don’t stop to wonder what Alix’s sister will think of me until I am much too close to back away without seeming strange.
My heart seizes in my chest as I close the last few feet of space, and Alix turns to face me – though whether he heard me coming a mile away, or sensed the chaos in my mind as I approached, I am not sure.
“I-I…” I begin, throwing a panicked glance between him and his walking companions, but he pulls me into a fierce hug before I can continue.
“Thank you so much Cheshire, I…” Alix trails off, his voice thick, as though threatening to crack – a sound I don’t believe I’ve ever heard. He recovers, swallowing hard as he moves away and says, “you’ve brought my family back to me.”
I simply stare at him for a moment, unsure of what to say – I could hardly take credit for such a feat, but as he releases me, he lets out a sad sigh and continues.
“At least, all that could be.”
“I’m… sorry about your brother,” I whisper, the memory of my uncle’s tormented soul still fresh on my mind, and I wrap my arms around Alix’s waist, returning the embrace he’d given me. “I… wish I could have done more, but… he is resting in the halls of Tubatron now.”
And not on that wretched wall. I add mentally, my stomach churning with anger at the injustice of it – at the idea of Byssian souls crushed into nothingness, destroyed, abandoned for their “faithlessness”, as though they hadn’t been thoroughly enough abandoned in life. I glance up at Alix to see sadness in his eyes, a faraway stare, though whether my indignation for our people has crept across our link, or his sadness is for his lost family, I am not sure. I bite my lip, once again at an utter loss, and tighten my grasp on him, when his sister – my aunt, calls my attention away.
“I never imagined Alix would have children before me,” she says, moving to wrap me in a firm hug that is remarkably similar to the ones Alix gives, but somehow… warmer. I jump a bit, letting out a squeak of panic as I struggle for words to say that will not embarrass Alix in front of his family, but feel what I can only equate to a thump on the edge of my brain. Peering at Alix, I see a tired smile tugging at his lips, and over our bond, a sudden reassurance that there is no wrong answer – that he has a family to be embarrassed in front of, and that’s more than enough.
“Well, um… I’m adopted,” I begin awkwardly, “but um… my name is Cheshire, and.. it’s nice to meet you.”
“It’s lovely to meet you, Cheshire, I’m Katarine,” she says, and I beam, hurriedly reaching to shake her hand.
“I have children, too,” I add, “if you’d like to meet them?”
She releases me, a big smile spreading over her features as she looks from me to Alix, and back again, delight sparkling in her eyes at what I can only imagine is the prospect of Alix being not just a father, but a grandfather. He shared a similar excitement when I conceived Rhapsody, though twenty extra years of world weariness seems to have stolen the sparkle in Kat’s eyes from his.
“Oh, you do?”
“They’re… um… a little…. Strange,” I glance away, doubt digging its claws into my stomach and twisting at the sudden prospect of showing Rhapsody and Seren to her.
A doppelganger – a monster in most people’s eyes, and a mer baby… Kat’s death, it seems, was but a few years after war between Byssians and merfolk ravaged the coastal city. A war in which she no doubt participated, and perhaps the years had made Alix and Agorran understanding, but… there were no ‘years’ for Kat, nothing to dull the sharp, painful edge of her life as a hunter.
“But… I love them,” I conclude, shoving down the fear that claws at my every word and thought, and steeling myself to tell her the truth, however painful the rejection may be. It would be better to know now. “And they’re the best.”
Kat cocks her head, giving me a confused look and asks, “strange?”
“Well… one of my sons, is a merbaby,” I start, swallowing hard at the look of surprise – but at least not disgust, that dawns on my aunt’s face.
“Things must have really changed,” she says, her gaze wandering curiously to Nerida and Ulkair, who pick up on the stare, and rise to approach us. “They don’t… look like merfolk?”
“Actually… Nerida is,” I awkwardly fumble through my explanation, jogging to meet my lovers and pulling them back to my place by Alix. Nerida, who seems no less confused and nervous than Kat, claps her on the shoulder in an awkward imitation of the Byssian gesture, and Kat stiffens in response, but pulls on a smile, the forced nature of which sets off every panic alarm my mind has.
Why is this going so badly!?
“You’re very tall,” Kat mumbles, and I put my head in my hands, wishing I’d found a less intimidating way to introduce my lover, who, by her own nature, is quite intimidating. She clears her throat, however, regaining herself, and continues, “Erm, and beautiful. I’m sure you’re a wonderful… partner, for my niece.”
She phrases ‘partner’ as almost a question, and I hurriedly pull Ulkair to mine and Nerida’s sides.
“Um, and this is Ulkair, he’s… my other partner,” I suppose the lack of traditional labels is what makes it so hard to introduce my beloveds to others, but Kat gives me an understanding nod, as though it now makes a little more sense. I suppose it would, as men with multiple wives were not uncommon in Byss, and I hurriedly move on from the subject, continuing with my explanation.
“Anyway, so… Seren is… is… is,” I stumble again, mentally kicking myself as I struggle for the words with which to explain my strange, wonderful family, “adopted, too.”
“He’s my nephew,” Nerida adds, neither helping, nor hurting my explanation any.
“Yes, and… so, he’s a merfolk, but… he’s adorable, and– and the best,” I continue, my nervous rambling earning me only patient nods and smiles from my aunt – a title that never stops sounding strange to say. “Rhapsody, um.. He’s…”
I trail off, the moment of truth catching in my throat as a fist sized lump, and feel tears begin to well in the far corners of my eyes. How can I tell her Alix’s only child is a monster? My grasp on Ulkair’s arm tightens much too much, and I feel him gently place his hand on mine – a reassuring gesture that manages to challenge my initial doubt with a greater one. How could I be ashamed of Ulkair’s son? Our son? My beautiful, precious Rhapsody… Perhaps Kat would be alarmed by the truth, or suspicious of me, but… Rhapsody, if she couldn’t love him… there would be no manner of care in her heart.
“A doppelganger,” I finish, my voice smaller than I’d meant it to be, “like… me.”
Kat blinks at me, surprise obvious on her features, but not outrage.
“Um… yes, and… he’s a little scriggly, and… sometimes, he shoots lightning at people, but um…” I flounder helplessly, feeling the burn of shame on my face as I desperately try to feel less like an idiot, and glance at Alix, who is wearing the biggest, proudest grin I think I’ve ever seen.
“He’s a mighty sorcerer,” he boasts, and Kat smiles between the two of us, disbelief in her voice as she responds.
“Well, I see…. Much has happened since I’ve been… um, dead,” she pauses, mulling over the words for a moment and shakes her her, “what a strange thing to say… But it is not strange to be alive again. Thank you, Cheshire.”
She closes the distance between us in yet another hug, and I look at Alix, suddenly giddy – she didn’t freak out, or run away, or even call me out on my idiotic rambling. She…
ALIX, SHE LIKES ME!!!
I practically scream the words in his brain, and he shakes his head, reaching out to put a hand on my shoulder and asks simply,
How could she not?
I can’t help the sheepish, nervous giggle as Alix puts his arms around us, and I bite my lip.
I don’t know… I think Agorran had his doubts when he met me.
Alix chuckles, and, as though he were privy to my thoughts, Agorran’s arms join Kat’s and Alix’s around me, and I think, for a moment, my heart stops – as though debating whether or not to simply explode and let me die here and now, in this state of disbelief and joy. When I am released, I cling to Alix’s hand, my fears and woes temporarily forgotten, and Kat leans on Agorran, who braces her in his arms. I feel tears well in my eyes again as I watch them – the picture of the happiness they all deserve, the weight of the world gone from Agorran’s eyes as they exchange an amorous stare, and… and I helped. I couldn’t have ever been so naive as to tell Alix that I “would fix it”, but… this was as close as it could possibly come to fixed, wasn’t it?
It wasn’t without cost, of course, my five fingers wrapped around Alix’s four a hard reminder of that, but he interrupts my train of thought as I squeeze his hand.
I would have given that and more. He says, and I look up at him to see the familiar, no nonsense face of the Alix I am used to, which tells me there is no room for argument.
I’m… sure we can heal it? I offer, and he nods, but seems unmoved.
It wouldn’t matter. I could never miss any part of myself as much as I missed my _twin._
With a small nod, I lean my head on his shoulder, turning my attention back to Agorran and Kat, whose energy
seems to be fading fast.
“Well… you all seem to be on your way to the temple,” I swallow the lump in my throat as it builds, pushing down the part of me that screams that I would be unwelcome in such a journey. “I… won’t stop you, but I can maybe bring the babies by later?”
“I would love that, but… I… I need to rest.” Kat says, and I nod hurriedly.
“Okay… perhaps tomorrow, then?”
I give Alix one more hug, and with little more discussion, they are off on their way to the temple for rest and food, and some much needed time together, I imagine. Nerida and Ulkair head off, hand in hand, either to return home and check on the boys, or perhaps to try and finally catch up and settle.. whatever it was that happened between them, either way, I linger in my space, unsure of whether or not I should pursue them, and let my eyes wander the rest of my companions. Loin has disappeared with Selene’s body, and in all of the excitement and panic I suppose I didn’t keep track of to where, though I imagine he’s taken her to the temple, where the priests can keep her safe until she can be resurrected. I glance past Caspian and Mimi, and my vision settles on Aadya, who seems to be at the same loss as I am for what to do next. Taking a deep breath, I cross back over the grassy field to stand in front of her.
“Um, Aadya?” I ask, and she looks down at me, her figure so ridiculously towering it almost isn’t imposing.
“W-Would you… like to come and play music with me? It’s still early and I’ve yet to raise my daily praise to Tubatron.”
She smiles, and I find myself releasing the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding.
“Indeed, I would love to. I am so happy for your family, I just… didn’t want to intrude.”
“That’s okay, I… feel that way, too, sometimes,” I sigh, and can’t help but lower my gaze, my stomach writhing into nervous knots as I try to muster the words I know I have to say. “But… um, before we go… I… thank you, for all of your help. I know when I asked you to come with us, you were worried about your honor in… I guess, abandoning your old allegiances. I just wanted to say, um… for whatever it’s worth, I think your honor is above reproach. And… you’re an amazing person and you’ve done so much for Alix, and you saved his life twice and mine, and I just…”
I feel my breathing waver, my throat tightening as I wring my hands and try to find the words. “Um… I… I’m humbled to have you fighting by my side, and I’m proud to call you my friend.”
When I finally manage to finish my sentence, Aadya kneels, and then crouches, reaching out a large hand to pat me, as though to console me for my own struggle to communicate, and I sniffle, glancing up at her to see a smile on her large, but gentle features.
“Thank you,” she says, “I appreciate you very much. You are good friend.”
I smile at her in return, though I fear it comes across as more of a grimace as my stomach writhes in objection to the words I am slowly leading up to, and their possible consequences.
“And, um, you know… if you’re interested, I…” I bite my lip, ceasing the incessant wringing of my hands only to grasp the skirt of my yellow dress within them, “I think the clergy of Tubatron could use someone like you.”
I take a deep, shaking breath, and tear my eyes away from Aadya and toward Alix’s retreating form – I have to let go. He could be so happy, they could be so happy, I have to trust the that there is love enough in his heart for his family, and Aadya, and me. And if there isn’t… and… if they replaces us, then… Well, nothing lasts forever, I suppose, and I’d have had more time with someone as amazing as Alix in my life than I probably deserved anyway. And more time than I’d have had if he’d stayed in Byss, or if he’d died trying to save me from Dovev, or in that undead camp.
“And… so could Alix, I think.”
Aadya beams and follows my gaze after Alix with obvious affection in her eyes, and then looks back at me and says “yes, I think I felt Tubatron’s call.”
I rub my aching chest gingerly, the thought of lightning pouring through my heart never a fond memory, but it seems, ever a present one.
“Yeah, I… think I felt it, too,” I mumble, and Aadya winces, gently patting me on the back with just a finger.
“I am sorry,” she says – obviously she hadn’t anticipated the force with which her empowerment would hit me.
“It’s not your fault,” I shake my head, reaching up to pat her hand in consolation, “I… have an increasingly delicate heart these days.”
“I think you have strong heart,” Aadya objects, “and family seems very important to you.”
“My… family is pretty much my everything,” I mumble, trying hard to keep in the internal, warning screaming that I have just signed away said family.
“And I think your baby is adorable,” Aadya adds, and I blink at up at her, confused for just a moment before it occurs to me she likely heard my desperate ramblings about Rhapsody. “I think he will be strong one day, like his mother.”
I glance away, drawing my shoulders up shyly as my face begins to heat – a certain sign of the many shades of pink it must be turning.
“Oh.. gee.. well, thank you,” I mumble, scuffing the ground with my boot, and Aadya lets out a hearty laugh as she stands.
“Come, let us pray,” she announces, and I nod, hurrying down the street with her toward my Byssian home.
We stop along the way to pick up the boys, who are both happy, asleep and fed – not surprising, as I left them with a Byssian woman, and not some worthless, selfish Sigilite. I thank her and her husband both profusely and sincerely, but that is all I can seem to offer, as they neither want, nor need my money. It has no real value in Byss, such a small and only recently recovering community, but even if it did, between the nature of Byssian lives, and Alix’s status, as well as my own, I doubt they would desire my payment. Byssians are no strangers to the communal care of children, and not a single one of us would place money above the welfare and care of something as precious as a child’s life – which is exactly the way it should be.
Ulkair and Nerida are nowhere to be found when we arrive home, leading me to believe even more strongly I was right to assume they are trying to sort out the mess that brought us here – between Nerida’s dreams, and her behavior, there was no doubt plenty to discuss. I tuck the boys into Alix’s bed and hurry back outside to Aadya, who is plucking the stings of her harp in the yard. Taking a place beside her, I dig through my bag of holding for my harp, wiggling it free of the pocket dimension with considerable difficulty. Taking a deep breath, I begin to weave a melody around her steady rhythm, once again growing a second pair of arms, and adding to our duet the steady drumming of my hands on the ebony instrument.
The melody becomes whimsical and earthy, and I circle my harp to achieve Aadya’s range, lifting my voice in song to our god as I feel his eyes turn to our performance.
“Can you feel the wind of the north my dear?
For the chill means I am near.
Turn your face to the north my dear,
The frost my frozen tears.
Breathe in, the wind
Of the north my dear.
For the day is dawning clear,”
As the words pass my lips, Byss’ sunrise, ever a sight for sore eyes, greets us with a clap of uproarious thunder. I jump at the noise, so unusual in the clear skies, but manage to keep my hands moving over my strings as a bolt of brassy lighting careens from above us to strike Aadya. She pauses, breathing deeply, and I feel the familiar presence of Tubatron’s divine energy begin to flow through her, reverberating off the glowing strings of her harp. Tubatron has accepted Aadya into the ranks of his clergy, and as his power washes over us, soaking in our every chord, filling the air around and between us, I can feel only the assurance that he is pleased with the addition.
The certainty lifts a weight from my chest, and I feel a smile creep over my features as I continue to play and dance circles around my harp. For the first time I feel no doubt in a choice I have made as Tubatron’s High Priest, and the clarity even begins to seep from one part of my life to the next – Aadya is a mighty ally, and would be an asset to the faithful, and our family.
When all twenty of my fingers are sore, and the presence of my god has faded, I finally let my hands slip numbly to the side of my harp, and look to Aadya, who smiles at me.
“You do not usually play this long?” She asks, and I shake my head.
“I suppose I lost track of time,” I admit, glancing at the sun for a sense of how much time had passed, when a familiar crying reaches my ears – well, Seren was awake, and so, I am certain, will Rhapsody be in only a moment.
“Oh… well.. one moment,” I excuse myself and hurry inside to find, of course, that Seren’s cries have roused his brother, who also begins to cry, although his tiny whines are drown by the mer baby’s demand for food. I shake my head, sighing and plucking each of the boys from the bed, one with each set of arms, and make my way to the windowsill, where I perch to feed Seren.
“Now, that is healthy baby,” Aadya comments, reaching down to gently pat Seren’s head as I allow him to nurse, which immediately quiets his wailing.
“Yeah,” I sigh, “a big, healthy baby.”
“Is good to be healthy,” Aadya says, taking a seat near the window, “but you should wean him!”
“Well… Maybe, but.. he’s still so young,” I object, although it occurs to me I have no idea when is ‘too young’ to wean, or too old to still be breastfeeding him. Aine said a year was about right, but… he’s so big as it is, I don’t know if at double his size, this feeding ritual will still be practical. I suppose I am more caught up in my debate than I realized, because I barely notice Mimi’s approach until she is very close and speaking to me.
“Cheshire?” She asks, “how long are we going to be in Byss? Do you know?”
“I need to go back to Sigil,” Mimi explains vaguely, and I squint at her, trying to wrap my mind around what matter could possibly be so important that she doesn’t have the time to rest and recuperate from our struggle in the plane of negative energy. I suppose we do need a plan, but my head is still spinning, unable to parse all of the events that laid just a couple of hours behind us – I’ve only just breathed the sigh of relief that comes with holding my sons again, knowing they are alive, and so am I… how could I possibly have a plan?
“…Is it urgent? ” I ask, reaching up to rub my forehead as the pounding headache I’d somehow forgotten in my prayers flares up to make itself known again.
“I had something made for you and I have to pick it up,” Mimi explains, her tone still delightfully casual, “and I wanted to get some stuff for Byss and spend some time with Declan!”
So, “no”. My mood, already spiraling, plummets further as I stare at Mimi’s expecting smile. How can she already be planning to leave? I.. I can barely breathe! Alix’s family is here, and I haven’t even gotten to introduce the boys… But then, I suppose I shouldn’t even be here. I have a duty, an obligation to the faithful and to Tubatron, which I dropped to run here for an emergency, which has passed. I feel the bitter sting of responsibility biting away at the peace my wonderful, former home brings me, but even if Mimi is right, I cannot leave today.
We need to rest first, and we’ve nowhere yet to go back to – in case she forgot this gem, Ooze formally uninvited us from the music hall, which means finding lodgings in Sigil we likely can’t afford, or staying in that wet, stale fortress in the elemental plane of water. That may be what we have to do, but I’m not happy about it, and whether I stay one night in Byss versus one night in that fortress, I do not believe, will make any difference to the faithful.
“That doesn’t sound urgent, Mimi, but if you need to go today, talk to a competent spell caster,” I mumble, my failure in Elysia seeping into my words, “Nerida or Ulkair can send you.”
“Well I just didn’t know when we were planning on leaving,” Mimi continues to press, “or… do you not have a plan?”
If you want to go, then DO. I scream the words at her in my head, my mind spinning – what does she want from me? What answer can I give her other than a solution? How could I possibly have a plan? Was she not there, did she not see what I have been up against for the last two days!? My throat tightens, my eyes water as I stare at her, incredulous.
“Mimi, listen to me,” I begin, my voice coming out quiet and hard as I try to keep it level. “Yesterday morning, Ulkair was gone, Nerida was crying in a blanket fort, and Alix… broke. I did anything I had to do to just… fucking get here and do what I had to do. I don’t have a plan! I don’t ever have a PLAN. I don’t know how long I’m going to be here, I don’t even…. If you want to go back to Sigil, talk to Nerida and Ulkair, because they can cast the magic, and I… I can buy a five thousand copper scroll. I… will not begrudge you your return and I’m sure if… JUST YOU went back, you’d be welcome with the faithful.”
My every attempt to keep calm fails, my voice raising and breaking indiscriminately as I devolve from some measure of sensibility to blatant bitterness, and Mimi can only stare at me, shocked, as though she could never have seen it coming. The look in her eyes couldn’t more clearly say she thinks that I am insane, and as the weight of my emotions crushes against me, I feel my eyes narrow in a furious glare – who is she to judge me!? To ask of me, and to insult me, and take, and take, and take and then to think I am so useless when I break underneath the strain!? I did everything I knew how to do! I do everything I can, every. Single. DAY!
I don’t have the answer to one question, well, what do you want from me!?
“I.. I don’t even know if I have all my organs, at this very moment!” I exclaim, the words finally bursting from my lips after a long enough spiral beneath her silent stare, “what the hell do you want from me!?”“Well, I just didn’t know if we had a plan coming here,” Mimi mumbles, as if somehow repeating that fact again could change my answer.
“You know what the plan was? It was DO ANYTHING I HAD TO DO TO STOP THE BLEEDING!” I scream, a sob breaking my conviction as I hold Seren and Rhapsody tighter than I should, “And I did that! I did MY JOB! I DID EVERYTHING I COULD!”
“I guess I’ll.. talk to Nerida and Ulkair,” Mimi mumbles, eyeing me like I was a killer beehive she regretted kicking. I sob as she backs away from me, and pause only when I feel a tiny hand on my face, blinking back my tears to look at Rhapsody, staring up at me through huge, innocent black eyes. Even my infant son is worried for my mental state. No wonder Mimi ran away. Sniffling, I pull on a smile and turn my head to wipe my tears away on the shoulder of my shirt, before leaning down to nuzzle his sweet brassy face.
“You’re so sweet, and much too smart for your own good, little man,” I lament, kissing his forehead before I drag a guilty stare up to Aadya. “I.. I’m sorry, Aadya. I don’t mean to keep… coming to pieces like this, I swear I’m normal sometimes.”
Waving her hand dismissively, Aadya harumphs. “Clearly that one does no understand good timing. It’s been…challenging day, no? And babies eat better when mother is calm. She should no ambush you like that.”
‘Challenging’ was one word for it, certainly. I take a deep breath, breathing it out in a long, heavy sigh as I watch Mimi’s wings disappear from sight down the streets.
“Maybe… it just wasn’t as hard on her as it was the rest of us,” I mumble, perhaps more to myself than Aadya. Mimi, I suppose, had no special stake in what we just went through above and beyond the norm. No weight on her shoulders of her past sins or dead family, no knowledge that one slip up could cost her everything, or damn a family member’s soul. To her, I suppose, it was just any other battle, and I seem to be the only one who considers each of those a frightening struggle.
“Well, I suppose Alix will probably be with Kat and Agorran the rest of the day, I… could show you around the city, if you’d like?” I offer, eager to move on from my breakdown, “there’s… not really a lot to see but, it’s nice?”
It seems like an awkward offer, now that I’ve said it – as though Aadya’s day would somehow hinge on Alix’s presence? But I hadn’t seen the city since we left, and with the permanent glitter and the beautiful weather, there was no better way I could think of to spend a few hours of the day, and it would be a chance to get to speak with Aadya and know her better. A chance, I suspect, that soon I will be glad to have taken, given how closely intertwined our lives will undoubtedly soon be.
Aadya agrees, and I lead her all over the town, a story about Alix’s heroics to be told at every corner. She seems happy, and is, I believe, the first person outside of orphaned Byssians to ever actually listen to my stories about Alix, at least with any enthusiasm. We stop in the center of town, where the mirror to Elysia had stood, to actually observe the statues I’d seen the day before, I lead her around the arena’s stands, and, through quite a bit of ashamed giggling, manage to describe our battle with that pyro hydra.
There are somber memories and stories to be told, of course, but I can’t seem to speak them the moment, even as the sounds of battle and screams of my kinsmen replay in my ears. Staring down the path we’d walked to the government building, now marked as a memorial, with the names of every Byssian lost, I eventually lose my will to reflect on our past. Aadya seems to understand, she pats my back gently, walking with me in silence until we are a ways from the arena, and I have cleared my head.
Day Something (Again)
Aadya joins me in the wee hours of the morning for my prayers, her harp a lovely accompaniment to every tune that I play. I’d grown quite accustomed to scaling the walls of my home for its rooftops, but it is much easier on my exhausted limbs, and a nice change of pace for her to so easily lift me to and lower me from them. When I am done praying, I hurry inside to help Alix cook, although I get little done in the way of actually assisting with breakfast before Seren calls my attention, demanding his own. Ulkair and Nerida are fast asleep in their neighboring house, and I think to wake them but… breakfast will save another hour or so, and I hate to deny them any amount of rest, especially when their night was rather… Occupied.
Alix makes his way to the temple to check on Kat just after breakfast, and while I am eager to join him, it occurs to me that she and Agorran may both likely still be sleeping, and while Alix is capable of quietly, and unobtrusively checking on them, I am… not. I stay at home to finish feeding Seren, and opt for a nice long bath with him and Rhapsody. Our small wooden tub is not so thrilling to him as the large stone bath in the music hall, but he still enjoys the water and playing with soap bubbles. The quiet morning gives me time to spend with Tad Cooper and the babies, unwinding the tangled mess of nerves and battle memories that is my mental state, and by the time Nerida and Ulkair are awake, Alix returns from the temple, Nighteyes in tow.
The wolf is a sight for sore eyes, and he barks happily at me as I drop to my knees to hug him close and scratch his ears.
“Nighteyes! I missed you so much!” I exclaim, and he nuzzles my face, pausing to sniff Rhapsody’s head and letting out a soft whine. I look up at Alix, stroking our good friend’s coarse white fur as I do, “I’m glad he’s alright… When I realized that it wasn’t really Agorran in the temple…”
Alix sighs — clearly this isn’t a subject of which any of us will ever be fond, and I knit my brow, deciding it best not to push, and instead wrap our furry friend in another big hug. I puff out a sigh against Nighteyes’ fur, glad for his many years of defending himself and Alix from the undead, and that nothing was done to him in our absence. Seren squeals happily from Ulkair’s arms, and I look over to see him reaching for our fluffy companion with all the gusto he can muster. Giggling, I pluck him from his father’s grasp and sit on the floor next to Nighteyes once more, gently guiding his hand to pet him, and mindfully keeping him from grabbing onto great tufts of fur like he does my hair. Night Eyes is patient, but he certainly would not appreciate such a gesture.
Seren stares at our hands moving over the fur for a moment, and then breaks out into another happy fit of squeaking, flipping his tail joyfully from my lap as Nighteyes moves closer and licks him. I giggle, rubbing my beloved wolf’s ears as he sniffs the babies once more, and patiently allows Seren’s overzealous patting of his face.
“I’ll be picnicking with Kat and Agorran for lunch,” Alix announces, and I turn my attention to look up at him, “Kat hasn’t had much chance to experience the new Byss.”
“That sounds wonderful, I’ll–” I pause mid statement as it occurs to me he may enjoy the quiet time with his sister, without my… rambunctious brand of company, and instead ask, “can I come?”
“Yes,” he answers, pausing only for a moment to look at me quizzically, “of course you can.”
“Great! Then I’ll help you make food!” I get to my feet, laying Seren by Night Eyes, who gives me a long suffering stare as the mer baby clings to his neck.
“We have some time yet,” Alix points out, “we only just ate a couple of hours ago.”
I feel my stomach rumble with disappointment, but realize I am the only one of our merry band who eats six to eight times a day when able, and that is sad, considering one of us is a dragon.
“Oh, right,” I scratch the back of my head sheepishly and I take my seat on the floor next to Night Eyes once more.
Alix shakes his head, passing me a bowl of leftovers from breakfast off of our counter before he walks outside to speak with Aadya. I can only vaguely hear their voices, and I fight back the temptation to eavesdrop, instead tearing the loaf of green bread on my bowl into pieces. It’s just as awful as I remember it being, especially after having had decent food in Sigil to compare it to, but somehow every bite brings a smile to my face, and the last few, tears to my eyes. It tastes like home. Something I hadn’t realized how badly I’d missed until I was here, sitting on this floor, speaking to the friends I’d left behind, snuggling my beloved animal companions, watching my son play on the floor I wanted to raise him on.
I quickly reach to wipe the budding tears from my eyes before Ulkair or Nerida notice them – Nerida never even wanted to go to Sigil, how could I even begin to tell her how much I don’t want to go back? How hard it hit me when Mimi so quickly demanded we leave? How much it stings to know that this will likely be my last day in my beautiful, glittering home? I firmly remind myself that this home would be none of those things, and this house would be an empty memorial to Alix, the fallen hero of Byss, were it not for Tubatron, that any sacrifice he asks of me is just, that we can afford no regrets, and the faithful do not need a selfish, unsure leader. For a moment, it placates my longing, and I feel the edges of my heart harden just a little more.
The morning is quiet and the afternoon comes quickly, prior to helping Alix prep food for an increasingly large picnicking party, I spend most of it with Ulkair & Nerida. They seem in good enough spirits, so I can only suppose between that and the rather audible sex they’d had last night, they resolved their fight. I feel the nagging urge to ask periodically pulling at my thoughts, and dismiss it at first – it’s none of my business, I insist, but that doesn’t stop me from wishing that it were. That I could be trusted with these dilemmas, with Nerida’s plans and her victories – I would have been happy for her if she’d told me about the emerald, for both of them, and I would have at least been… involved. Even a little.
I keep the biting suspicions at bay as I help Alix pack, but as we walk to the lake, Ulkair and Nerida’s hands laced, my mind wanders back to the emerald they’d shown me with such excitement. The trip to Elysium she’d made, traveling the planes to find only the best gem cutter in all of them to create an artwork appropriate of their love. A gem the size of our child. A gem she got for Ulkair, not for me, not for us. She hadn’t gone to such lengths for me, but then… why would she? Ulkair, he is her everything, and I… I’m just her silly bard. I understand now, but it doesn’t seem to make it any easier to swallow. It was a merfolk’s marital tradition, the exchanging of gems between yourself and the one with whom you wanted to spend the rest of your life.
My mind echoes the word in a cruel taunt. Not the few, not the many… not the two with whom you wanted to spend the rest of your life. The one. I stood beside her in fire, and blood, and war, and I cannot even earn her trust – how could I hope to have earned the same kind of affection she shows to Ulkair? To make her see me the way I see her, or even… the way Ulkair sees me. I let my memories stray to our time together while Nerida was away, the love in his eyes, the comfort of his arms, the words he’d spoken to me in Elysian… I reach up to rub the tears from my eyes as I feel them building, trying my best not to let the war waging in my mind spread to Alix’s, but a quick glance in his and Aadya’s direction suggests his thoughts are… elsewhere.
A soft smile tugs its way to my lips, my worry for Alix and I’s future hasn’t seemed to subside, and I wonder if it ever will, but… again my thoughts focus on my recent time with Ulkair, and if Alix has a chance at something even remotely close to that with Aadya… I can’t help but be happy for him, whatever the cost. I suppose… the same should be true of Nerida. I trail my eyes back to my beautiful mermaid, hand in hand with the person she loves most in the entire multiverse, and feel my jealousy trickle down into sadness, and then acceptance. I am not that person. I know that, but that doesn’t mean I’m… nothing? And this proposal, it doesn’t threaten my place in Ulkair’s heart, at least.
Of course not. My thoughts reaffirm, but then creep further and darker. But that lie would have.
I shake the conspiracy from my head before it has time to linger and grow, but… She lied to me three days ago, told me Ulkair didn’t care about me, and why? The question still lingers as we meet up with Agorran and Kat at the lake, but I shoo it away as I pass my infant son into his great aunt’s arms. It’s been there for days, it will be there for me to worry over when there is not family to celebrate.
“He’s so… shiny!” Kat exclaims, carefully taking the infant from my arms – there is not an ounce of fear or anger in her eyes, and I feel my heart swell with the acceptance.
“Well, he’s blessed by our god, and, um,” I giggle a little, offering her a sheepish shrug of my shoulders, “brass is kind of our thing.”
“He’s gotten much bigger,” Agorran comments, peering over his love’s shoulder at the tiny son of Byss he’d delivered just before we left.
“Yes… they’re both growing like weeds, but… that’s a good thing, I think.”
“A good thing, indeed,” Agorran smiles kindly at me, “they have a good mother.”
I feel my cheeks flush and I look to the ground, sheepishly scuffing the grass with my boot, “th-thanks.”
Kat smiles at me, and then at Alix, and she fusses over Rhapsody for awhile longer as we set out food before handing him to Agorran, at which point I pass her Seren.
“Woah,” she exclaims, her figure drooping temporarily under the unexpected weight before she readjusts, “this is a HEALTHY baby.”
“He, uh… he eats a lot,” I mumble, my blush intensifying. Kat smiles, but as I peer up at her, I can’t help but notice how… vague it is.
“Aww.. he’s so adorable,” she murmurs, “I just love him so much…”
“Thank… you?” I begin, glancing around at my companions – none of them seem to have noticed the sudden change. Seren giggles happily, and as Kat reaches for the buttons of her shirt, I hurriedly snatch him from her arms. A spell, of course!
“I-I’m so sorry,” I begin, but Kat continues to fiddle with her buttons, the effect unbroken by removing Seren from her proximity. I hurriedly take her hand to stop her, and she looks up at me, a familiar haze in her eyes. Domination. Not charm, not even a suggestion, but domination. I look, panicked, back down at the baby in my arms, and he giggles, all too pleased with himself. But how could he possibly..? Then, of course, it hits me. He is part aboleth, Typhon dominated my mind with ease, and the minds of countless others – likely Aquis could do the same.
“Ulkair, dispel magic!” I hear Nerida hiss from behind me, her voice panicked. She must have put it together, too. Kat blinks at me, her gaze trailing from her hands, held by mine.
“What? Seren’s just a little hungry,” she says simply, “and he’s so adorable!”
“I-I’ll feed him,” I answer, for lack of any less awkward response, “it’s fine.”
“Oh, alright, as long as he gets fed,” she says, and as she drops her hands, she shakes her head, the tinge of magic disappearing from her eyes. “Wait… what? That was strange… I can’t feed him…”
My head buzzing with embarrassment and wonder, I stare down at Seren, who pouts as he loses control of his target, and then begins to cry – the forced, crocodile tears of a child that has nothing to truly cry about.
“Ulkair…. How do we teach our baby to not dominate people?” Nerida whispers, the increasing desperation in her tone evident – this ability of Seren’s must be hitting her harder than it is me.
Maybe you should have done that to your wet nurse, and not your aunt. I grumble mentally, catching Seren’s hands as he reaches up to pull my hair in a frustrated demand of food. He wails, beginning to work himself into an actual hysteria, I suppose because his false tears were earning him nothing. But he can wait – I shouldn’t reward that kind of behavior with what he wants. I think.
“Uh…” Ulkair stumbles, sounding truthfully stumped for the first time since I met him, “tell him it’s bad when he’s older and can understand that?”
I glance over at them, and Nerida’s wide green eyes seem to suggest that’s not enough of an answer for her. She must have been hoping for some sort of magical contingency.
“Until then, we just have to be careful,” Ulkair says, shrugging up his shoulders, and I bite my lip.
“I.. don’t mind that, Ulkair, but… we leave him with babysitters,” I point out – if there is a magical solution, it seems likely we should take it. I have no idea what having your mind dominated by an infant is truly like, but I imagine it makes it rather difficult to function as a reliable adult. I sigh as Seren’s insistent wails increase in pitch, and shift away from our guests to move my shirt and allow him to nurse before Rhapsody picks up on his hysteria.
I’m sorry Alix… I mumble mentally, glancing over at him. We bring his sister back to life, and her first day back among the living my infant dominates her mind… As if Byssians didn’t have enough reasons to be suspicious of merfolk, and as if she hadn’t been uncharacteristically accepting of myself and my strange sons… He doesn’t seem at all bothered, in fact, if I didn’t know better, I’d theorize he hadn’t noticed. I do know better, of course, but he glances over at me and smiles, a sure show that he is not worried, as if his seat, casually leaning against Aadya’s bare leg was not enough of an indication.
Ulkair sighs, scratching his chin, “I’d have to research it, but maybe I could lay a contingency spell over him… so that when he uses that domination, it casts dispel magic.”
Nerida is clearly uncomfortable, but she nods, and then turns an apologetic stare to Kat, “I am terribly sorry about my nephew and his behavior.”
“I’m also sorry,” I mumble, “you… you can’t take me anywhere…”
“Oh, it’s alright Cheshire,” Alix shakes his head, and I glance over at him to see he’s still smiling, “he’s just a hungry, healthy baby.”
“Brat,” I correct, although his new found happiness is contagious, and I smile too, “a big, healthy brat. ”
I trail my stare down to Seren, who looks up at me intently, all his incredible tears from just a moment ago miraculously gone. “You are a brat.”
Seren seems altogether unmoved by the title, but I hear a tiny, familiar giggle in my head, and turn quickly to look at Rhapsody in Agorran’s arms, his black eyes resting on me, a big smile on his face.
What in the world am I going to do with these two…?
Kat shakes her head, though whether it’s the last of Seren’s magic she’s shaking off, or just astonishment I’m not sure. “ Quite the family you have.”
“Um… yes,” I mumble, “we’re special…”
“Seems like he’ll be a mighty warrior to defend Byss one day,” Kat says, and I feel my chest puff up with pride, “He’s certainly big enough!”
“Well… I think so,” I smile down at the merbaby in my arms, and then look around at the beautiful grassy planes, and the crystaline lake, “but hopefully Byss won’t need too terribly much defending anymore.”
“Yes, I don’t even recognize it!” Kat says, following my gaze with a smile on her face, before leaning against Agorran, and snuggling his arm. “It’s… beautiful!”
I beam at them, watching their loving exchange for a moment with so much happiness in my heart I think it could burst. I’ve never seen Alix so… joyful, nor Agorran. Even the kindest, most genuine smiles I’d seen on his face seemed empty compared to the look in his eyes when he holds Kat. Surely our lives have never been more right, or more complete than they are in this moment. Even with everything behind us, even with Nerida’s… my stomach twists, though whether from my excited state, or the fear that threatens to ruin it, I’m not sure, but suddenly it occurs to me that this is the perfect time for a drink. And bottled Elysian sunshine would compliment the moment, and take the edge off, I am certain. I reach over to gently poke Ulkair, and he looks at me, humming out an indulging “hmm”, as was his typical form of acknowledgment.
“Um…. You know… this is a pretty special occasion,” I begin, and he nods in agreement, “any chance you might want to break out some Elysian Sunshine?”
“I could be…. Persuaded ,” he drawls, his lips splitting into a lascivious grin. I can’t help but giggle, scooting closer to him.
“Seems I have a talent for persuading you,” I murmur, and Nerida looks between us, her brow knitting.
“What are you two talking about?”
“Um…” I blush, suddenly remembering all the family members by whom I am surrounded, and clear my throat, “nothing.”
I turn my lewd smile into my best, most pitiful puppy dog eyes and stare up at Ulkair, but his grin doesn’t waver.
“Maaaaybe… if there were enough kisses in it for me…”
He trails off, and I shift, leaning up against him to place a soft kiss on his lips.
“Tell me when to stop,” I whisper, placing another kiss, and then another, trailing them softly along his jaw.
“Keep going,” he hums, utterly shameless, and I feel my face flush with desire at our proximity.
“You know,” I begin, shifting away from him to calm my racing heart before I lose my senses, “if you were to accept just a down payment, I could pay you back with… interest later.”
“Deal.” Ulkair leans down to capture my lips in one last kiss, his smile unwavering as he pulls away and opens a tiny portal to his pocket dimension. He takes out two bottles of the familiar nectar, and a series of small glasses.When Seren is done eating, I pass him to Ulkair to burp, and fix my shirt, then I pour one for each of my companions and pass them out, pausing as my eyes fall on Alix – Elysian nectar is high brow liquor, for sure, and not anywhere near so strong as what he usually drinks, but… perhaps that was even worse. He’d been completely sober for nearly four days, but I couldn’t possibly call him out, not here and now… I pour quite a bit less in his cup than I had the others, they are opaque so, maybe he won’t notice.
He stares at me as I pass him the cup, though whether it is my nervous shrinking back under his glance that gave it away, or he knew before, I’m not sure. He reaches out and takes my hands, and I sigh, depressingly resigned to give him as much as everyone else, when he guides me to pour the rest of his cup back into the bottle. He looks like the decision causes him physical pain, but I smile down at him, wordless thanks and relief all over my features as I call Tubatron’s holy energy to my hands and create water, filling his cup – and mine. I wanted a drink of this nectar badly, but not as badly as he did, and if he could put it down for me, I can abstain to support him. Besides, as I pass the rest of the bottle to Aadya, the twinge of sadness and disappointment worries me – I… shouldn’t have wanted that drink so badly, and I’m not sure why I do.
I take a seat next to Alix, and touch our glasses lightly in celebration.
“Cheers,” I murmur, sipping the water, and Alix sighs, sipping his as well.
“Alix, I hope you won’t mind, but… it’s such a special occasion,” Nerida begins, and I look back over at her, “I thought maybe a hero’s feast would be in order?”
I think my eyes light up faster than they should have at the prospect of something less… green for lunch, and Alix shrugs.
“I wouldn’t mind at all, Nerida,” he says, “that would be excellent.”
“Any requests?” Nerida asks, looking over the group as she raises her hands to cast the spell.
“Candy!” I exclaim – it wasn’t bottled sunlight, but… it was just as wondrous. Nerida laughs, shaking her head.
“Alright, Cheshire,” she says, summoning Eadro’s holy power to cast her spell. The magic glistens in the sunlight, summoning cushions, a low table, and more food than even all of us could eat – in a wide variety, including a variety of sweets, and chocolate. Immediately as the magic settles I snatch a piece from the table and offer it to Alix, giddy. He gives me a strange, suspicious look – I don’t think he understands how good food can be. How worth being excited about this piece of chocolate is.
“What is it?” He asks, taking it from my fingers and turning it over in his.
“It’s chocolate,” I explain, and he gives me a look that suggests my words actually explain nothing. “It’s… it’s candy, it’s wonderful, just.. try it! ”
He takes a bite of the chocolate cautiously, and I watch his face carefully as he contemplates it. After a moment, his eyes widen, a surprised delight in them that he controls and then hides well, but not from me. It helped being six inches from his face and staring at him expectantly the entire time, but I also feel the signals firing in his brain over our bond. I was right.
“See!?” I insist, and he nods, polishing off the piece of candy.
“That.. is very good,” he concludes, and I nod excitedly before my grumbling stomach gets the better of me. I pick up a plate from the table and fill it with… admittedly nothing but sweets, but the magic of hero’s feast makes them just as good as anything else. Once plates are filled and conversation is mostly replaced with contented silence, Ulkair calls the table’s attention.
“Well, since we’re all here: what are we going to do with this fortress I’ve been working on?”
Oh, right… That fortress. He and Nerida had spent a lot of their time there in the last month or so, and he seemed to be very excited about the work he was doing. I listened when they spoke of it in the evenings, I know, and yet… I can’t seem to recall much of the information I’d been given, I suppose with so much else to do and process, something I had so very little fondness for fell to the wayside.
“Are you… sure it’s safe?” I ask, for what must be the hundredth time in all our conversations, and he nods.
“Yes, yes, but we need to figure out a place to put it, or… places.”
“Yes, we could theoretically attach different rooms to various planes, like, leaving one in the elemental plane of water, one say, here in Byss, you know, but they would all connect to a central location. That kind of magic is… expensive and a bit dangerous, of course, but the cutting edge always is…”
Oh yes, this bit I recall. He’d explained this concept before, but it seems to interest the table more than it did me – perhaps they didn’t hear the ‘dangerous and expensive’ part? Whatever the case, Alix offers to scout out a location for us, but we must decide what we’re looking for, and the table erupts into chaos as people put forth ideas, all of which seem… a bit on the short-sighted side. Nerida wants water, no surprise, and a water_fall_ , which sounds… beautiful, but not entirely useful? Loin wants to put it in or by caves, a place for his soon to be dragon hoard, which is sensible for him, but not too terribly much for the rest of us. Nerida and Loin want it to be cold, I want it to be warm, Loin also says Mimi wanted somewhere nearby to shop, of all things. Perhaps she doesn’t understand that nearby, busy cities mean that the land we’d be dropping it on was almost certainly owned.
Amid the chaos, it becomes apparent to me that very few, if any, of my family members are aware of or at least concerned about how kingdoms and feudal lands work, and whether or not we would be making ourselves unwanted guests. Eventually I put forward that an island would be more secure than just any… land, and less likely to be owned, or even discovered, by some potential threat. Although it likely offers none or few of the cosmetic qualities that the group requested, and Caspian immediately jumps at the idea. Right, a pirate, of course that’s what she would want. From there we determine, with Caspian and Alix’s knowledge guiding us, what sort of island, whether or not it would be sustainable, farmable, and… possibly occupied by large, terrifying magical beasts like dragons.
The conversation takes more hours than I would have liked, and when my supply of candy to distract myself with has run dry, I find myself growing increasingly apathetic, but that allows my mind to wander places it should not, so I try to focus once more. In the end, Agorran and Kat retire much before the rest of us, and we have a rough, but somewhat sensible list before us. Loin insists on caves, but it turns out those could lead to mines – perfect for Nerida’s dwarven followers and for us to use as some sort of income, which, Nerida says that apparently Mimi insists, could be used to start up a brewery.
So many people have so many thoughts on this fortress… so many hopes and plans, and I hadn’t given it an ounce of consideration. It makes sense that Mimi would be thinking of our finances, it was part of what I’d assigned her to do, but.. a brewery? I want to object to this idea but then, of course, I realize that the faithful’s liquor habit is… alarming, and is dwarfed only by that of well, Dwarves, if what I’ve heard of them is correct.
It seems, however, that finding this mine-ready cave system is a bit out of Alix or Caspian’s area of expertise, so it is decided we will wait a few more days to give Nerida time to return to Elysium and gather one of her followers, whose area of expertise is exactly that. She and Ulkair will go tomorrow, apparently, when they have the needed spells, and likely return the following day, from there, Alix, Caspian, Aadya, and this dwarf, will apparently set out across the planes searching.
I… hate this idea. The short time Alix and I’s bond was shattered by his leaving Sigil for Byss nearly drove me mad, but for him to leave now, for some… indeterminate amount of time, to wander the planes in search of what was at least a needle in a haystack, if not an impossible goose chase. At least… he won’t be alone, and with Aadya they will likely travel quickly, but… the idea does nothing to settle my stomach.
Well, now he’ll have his family, a new love interest, and some silence in his head for once.
My thoughts taunt me, rattling between my ears, echoing my fears that should I ever even get to see him again, he will be a changed man when he returns. He’ll have had a break from me, from my madness, my clinging, I’ve never seen him so happy or distracted as he has been today, and when he’s gone, I… I won’t even be a part of that. I instinctively hug my knees closer and closer with every passing moment, every second ticking by bringing new misgivings or panic, desperate hope for a different plan, but I have so much work to do, so many things barely even set in motion with the faithful.
We all have things we need to do, we can’t all go, and this huge, daunting task of exploring… It would be something much better for Alix to do than watch my babies. It might keep him from drinking himself to death or staring at the pages of his book for another week, and… I have no right to be selfish over him, no reason not to trust he won’t care to return once he’s been away with Aadya for however long… I’m happy for them, I remind myself, I have to be. We all head home in the late afternoon, and as we walk, my mind buzzing, Alix puts an arm around me. I look up at him to realize I’ve fallen quite a bit behind the rest of our companions, and shift Seren’s weight from one arm to the other, getting ready to apologize when Alix pulls me into a tight hug.
“Thank you so much, Cheshire,” he breathes the words against my hair, his voice tearful, and I panic at his tone, putting my free arm around him.
“You brought my family back, Cheshire, you.. did… what I thought was impossible,” he continues, and I swallow hard, feeling tears threaten my eyes, “I love you, Cheshire, so, so much.”
“I-I… I love you, too, Alix,” I whisper, digging my fingers into the fabric of his shirt harder than I should.
My thoughts claw desperately at the tip of my tongue, fears demanding to be spoken, to beg him not to leave, not to change his mind, to call him out on unfair promises, so far out of context in this case they were barely viable. I bite them back, burying my face in his shoulder to try and keep it together, but a sob cracks through my ill-built defenses. “Just, please… just come back, alright?”
Alix laughs softly, and I feel my heart sink at the sound – he’s so happy, why… why can’t I just… be happy for him? Genuinely?
“Of course I will,” he says, pulling away and gently kissing my forehead, “it’s just a scouting mission, Cheshire. It’s not even dangerous.”
“I-It could be,” I murmur, my grip on his shirt unwavering, and he ruffles my hair.
“I’ll be careful.”
My stomach lurches as I tell my fingers to let go, to let him walk away, to just let. Him. Be. Happy. Not to weigh him down with the gravity of my insecurities. It doesn’t matter if he… it shouldn’t matter, I shouldn’t matter. Not more than his happiness. It’s all I ever wanted for him.
So just let. Go.
I repeat the words again, and again, and again, my fingers tremble, and then my lip. I can’t.
“Alix…” I begin, taking a shaking, deep breath. “I-I… I know you will be careful, I know… you’re strong, and you’re capable, and I… I know you’ll be able to come back to me, it’s just…”
Alix looks at me, his eyes trailing to my trembling hand and then back up to mine – the relaxation, the joy disappearing from them, the seriousness returned to his features hits me like a dagger in the chest. One I deserve. My will wavers, my thoughts quickly begin to spiral, and I force out the next words, wishing with every syllable I’d said anything but them.
“I’m afraid… you may not want to.”
“Why would I want to, Cheshire? Why would I want to be part of my daughter’s life? Why would I want to be with my grandchildren? Why would I want to spend time with the girl who brought peace to my family and my twin back to me? I can’t think of any reason I might want to be around her, the child I pulled out of the mists of Byss, only to find that it would be that woman who pulled me out of the mists of my past and give me a future.”
I lower my tear-stained gaze, unable to meet Alix’s stare as he speaks – I still can’t seem to will my hand from his shirt. I wish I knew what it is that keeps me here, paralyzed, unable to answer him, unable to lie, or to even understand the truth I am trying to tell. Alix has never given me any reason to doubt him, and his answer… makes it clear he thinks the same. He makes my fears sound so ridiculous, but still they writhe about in my stomach like a ball of hungry snakes, lashing out and biting at every chance. He’s never been anything but good to me, never done anything but the right thing, never expected me to be anything but what I am.
He makes it seem so simple, and I wish.. I had an answer for him, wish I could explain myself, I wish I knew… why he thinks I am so special.
“I don’t know,” I mumble, tears slipping slowly down my nose to splash on the glittering cobblestone roads beneath us. “I-I only did what anyone would do.”
“No, you did what only Cheshire would do,” Alix corrects, placing his hand over mine, “and that’s enough for me. Why isn’t it for you?”
My cheeks begin to flush with shame and frustration, and my grasp on him tightens. Why isn’t it enough for me? Why isn’t it enough for him to love me, for Ulkair to love me, for any of them to? Why can’t I care for my children, for my family, and be cared for in return? How can I insist on seeing the worse in every scenario, how can I think, after everything, that every turned back is a fleeing one? Why, after all I have done to see myself, do I still hear my mother’s words when I look in the mirror?
“I-I don’t know!” I choke out, another sob breaking my words, “I’m just so scared. I know it doesn’t make sense, Alix, I just… I see you with them, and you’re so happy, and all I can think is that… y-you don’t need me anymore. That I’m going to lose you, lose… everything, and I know I shouldn’t be so… jealous, it’s crazy. I know you love me, more than I could ever deserve, I just… can’t stand the thought of you not wanting me anymore, I… anyone but you, Alix…”
I weep, my fist white with the strain of my grasp, cruel words from my past echoing in my ears as I lose the security of my denial. The truth rakes my soul on its way out, but somehow… it is a relief to speak, let the demons out of my head, stop the rattling of the cage for just a moment.
“I will always love you, Cheshire. Anytime you think I might not, say something, don’t keep it inside, and I will gladly remind you of how much I love you,” Alix pulls me in close as he speaks, wrapping me in a tight, fierce hug, and I sob against his chest, the promise pulling me from the ledge upon which I have stood all day.
Holding me close, he whispers his next words, barely audible above my sobs, and I hear the deadly, unequivocating promise in his voice.
“And anyone who wants to harm you will have to answer to me.”
“I believe you,” I whisper, and I do. “I’m sorry it… it always seems to be me that’s hurting me. I don’t know… how to fight history, or stand up against my own memories. I know.. you don’t either, really, but… I guess that’s why we have each other, then, isn’t it?”I sigh, resting my head on Alix’s shoulder with a sniffle – we have each other, whatever’s changed, whatever new disasters lurk around every corner, we still have each other. I still have Alix. And that… won’t change. I take another deep breath, slowly calming, and finger by finger I release my iron grip, the fabric of Alix’s shirt mercilessly crunched into the shape of my fist. Sometimes I forget my strength. Still sniffling, I smooth the wool out gently as my hysteria ebbs away.
“You were right, Alix,” I mumble, “about Nerida… I should have talked to her. I thought… maybe tainted happiness was still better than none, but it’s… it’s making me crazy, and… I don’t even know sometimes, what’s real and what’s just my mind running away with itself.”
Alix sighs, and places his hand on my shoulder. “Perhaps the most powerful relationships have to go through the most challenges to survive. At least that’s my experience.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” I mumble, shifting Seren to one arm so that I link my other with Alix’s as we walk, “you always are.”
Our remaining days in Byss pass much faster than I want them to, the end of our stay looming ever closer, and with it, Alix’s journey into the unknown in search of our new home. Our new home, I am constantly reminded, that will never be as magnificent as our old one, here, in The Glittering City – what an amazing title, for an amazing place. It had been proposed to bring the fortress to Byss, but I shut down the idea quickly, at the table and in my own mind. Yes, it was lush, yes, it was unowned, yes, it was a place in which we were familiar and loved. For all intents and purposes, it is perfect, except for one – we bring trouble every where we go. Danger, fate dogs our every footstep, our enemies riding its unforgiving tide in and out of our lives, and I would never inflict those enemies upon this plane again.
Two accessible cities yet stood here, ours and the coastal city of merfolk, neither were strong or established enough to face an influx of strangers from all over the planes without losing their foothold on their homes. And that was only the threat of our allies or followers, not to even mention war, Ichtacas, demons, and the slew of other things always looming as a threat over us. Every Byssian was a strong son or daughter of war, that is true, but that didn’t mean that’s what they should be forever.
Of course, all of that was just a practical excuse, when the truth of it waters down to my own personal weakness. If I could set all those things aside, I would still not bring that fortress to this place, wouldn’t dare to call Byss my home again. I could never bring myself to leave. Just this visit, just these three short days, filled with urgency and strife, every moment makes it harder to face my uncertain future. Tubatron called me away from Byss, and I see now that among his reasons, he was certainly wise enough to know I could not have both. I cannot have my past and my future, I never could.
To be Alix’s daughter, I had to lose my old family, to be Seren and Rhapsody’s mother, I had to let go my own, to become a Byssian, I left behind Faerun, and to lead the faithful, I must leave behind Byss. If I bring that fortress here, I am digging in my heels, throwing a selfish, childish temper tantrum, insisting I want both. I want it all. I want my perfect home, my perfect family, my life and god and followers, and I don’t care what happens. That I don’t care what or who suffers the consequences of my selfishness, and that is not who I am, that is not who the faithful need, or who Tubatron wants.
Nerida returns to Elysium to gather her dwarf, but Ulkair stays to work on a project I requested of him for Alix, and I can’t help but be a little relieved. He is busy, and Nerida isn’t gone terribly long, but the snatches of time I spend with him, the boys and I “helping” with his work, are precious. When Nerida returns, my nerves twist with the looming threat of a conversation I’ve yet to have with her, and so I make myself busy, making up for lost time with my new found family members, and old ones alike. Hopefully Alix will not be gone long, and when he returns, we will have a safe place for Tad Cooper to come and stay with us, and space on an island all our own for him to romp, but in the meantime, I make sure to get plenty of snuggling time in with him and the babies.
He is surprisingly gentle, nuzzling Seren and even Rhapsody with the appropriate amount of care, and he barely so much as blinks when Seren pulls out a small fist full of his feathers and promptly sticks them in his mouth. Mortified, I of course remove the huge, dirty animal feathers from my infant’s mouth, and then his hand, and show him, once more, to be gentle with our animal companions, carefully guiding his hand to stroke the feathers on Tad Cooper’s neck. Still, the gentle giant’s patience makes me wonder, solemnly, if mine are not the first babies to tug on his fur or pull out feathers – he had a mate, had they once had babies of their own? If they had, they certainly had been killed, either by desperate Byssians or whatever horrors used to lurk in our swamps.
“I guess it must be pretty lonely, huh, buddy?” I murmur, snuggling against him, “I’m sorry it’s taking so long… maybe when we move, we can find you a lady friend, hm? Seems like it’s the season for it.”
Loin, Alix, Agorran… perhaps it was something in the air that worked a woman’s love into all of my family’s lives, of late, even Mimi had found what seems to be a serious partner in Declan. I suspect finding a lady for Tad Cooper would be no where near so, well, deadly, as it had been for most of my other companions, but I also doubt Alix would be thrilled at the prospect.
“Aww, but I bet baby owl bears are so cute!” I muse, playing with Seren’s caudal fin as he continues to poke and prod at Tad Cooper’s feathers. “And they would grow up and be big, strong, fierce protectors just like their daddy.”
I scoop Seren up into my arms with his brother, a task that gets more difficult with each passing day, and snuggle him close, “and just like you, my mighty sorcerers.”
Perhaps it was just my slanted perspective, but having a family of huge, monstrous bears patrolling our island and guarding our property and followers seems like a very good idea, and not to mention, after all my poor Tad Cooper has been through, he should have someone to keep him company while I’m gone. Our time in the sunshine flies, however, and before I know it, dawn arrives on our final day, and my arms are around Alix in a firm, tearful goodbye hug.
“Please be careful,” I whisper, and he sighs, rubbing my arms lightly.
“I told you we’ll be fine, Cheshire,” he says, “it’s just a scouting mission.”
“I-I know,” I mumble, reluctantly releasing my grasp. He kisses my forehead, and then Rhapsody’s, and Seren’s, and readies the rest of his gear.
“Oh, Alix? Before you go, I… had something I want to give you,” I feel my cheeks heat a little as Alix turns a curious stare my way. I set the babies on the bed and pull the rod Ulkair has crafted from the bag of holding, passing it to him. “Um, I asked Ulkair to uh… make this for you. It can cast enlarge person, and reduce person.. three times a day, and Ulkair made it so it should work on Aadya. It lasts a few hours and I uh, thought… you might… need it, you know, for… adventuring. ”
“Oh, thank you,” he says, taking the rod from my hands and putting it with the rest of his things with little muss or fuss. My face has undoubtedly turned six more shades of red in the moments that have passed, but he seems to pay it no heed, I briefly wonder if he really registered what I was implying, but… decide it best to not pry. They’ll…. Certainly figure it out.
I help him finish packing, and in the process, dump my bag of holding in favor of letting him use it – it only makes sense. Were they in a spot of danger, they could pile into it and Aadya could fly them to safety, also any number of supplies, weapons and food can fit into the tiny bag, or samples or things they might collect or need on their travels. When we meet the others outside, Caspian, Aadya, and Nerida’s dwarf are all apparently ready to go – I doubt Alix has ever been the one everyone was waiting on before, and… perhaps if I hadn’t periodically stopped his efforts to get ready with sobs and hugs, he would have maintained that record. I look up at Aadya, who smiles down at me, obviously sensing my nerves, or perhaps recalling how very shaky my performance was this morning when we’d prayed. She reaches down to gently pat me.
“Do not worry, we come back soon,” She says, her voice booming with confidence, and I nod, pulling on a smile.
“I know,” I murmur, “you’re… both so tough.”
I glance back Alix, ready to go, sober, purpose in his eyes, and I hope this is all for the best, that this mission is exactly what he, and all of us need. That it’s not just the temporary high of happiness that has him in his current state, and being back in a survival situation won’t send him spiraling, with no one around to… No, I shake my head of the thought. Alix got along just fine before me, just because I’ve seen his one weakness, doesn’t mean my interfering is the only thing keeping him from slipping off the ledge, and besides, he won’t be alone. I turn my gaze back to Aadya.
“Aadya… um, look after Alix, alright?” I mumble, hoping it is just loud enough for her to hear, but that I might not draw my father’s attention, “and don’t, um… don’t let him drink too much.”
She cocks her head at me, and follows my concerned gaze to Alix and back, but nods.
“Of course,” she says, “like I say, we come back soon.”
I nod, bringing my fist over my heart in a Byssian salute – as there is no other familiar gesture, such as the typical hand-to-shoulder clapping or even a handshake, that Aadya and I could exchange. She smiles, pounding her gauntlet to her armored chest in what I imagine to be her culture’s own variation of the gesture, and then moves to join Alix and the others in the space in which Nerida will cast her spell. Eadro’s holy magic crashes over them like a wave as Nerida raises her hands, speaking her incantation, and then, with a soft ‘pop’, they are gone.
I shudder as my link with Alix severs, in an instant, as though it were no stronger than a blade of grass, swaying and bending beneath weather, battle and bloodstain, but so, so simply cut. His thoughts vanish from mine, his feelings, urges, his mental state, his soul disappear from their place, ever present, alongside my own. I feel empty, unbalanced, the sharp contrast sending my nerves skyrocketing as I am forced to face, for a second time, how very much of my stability is not my own. Through every moment of panic, through every nightmare, every struggle, all the indecision, all the doubt, the solid, grounding force of Alix has been there, just on the other side of the mirror, often silent, but always tangible.
When he left for Byss, it was barely a day they were gone, and knowing it would not be long, I managed to ignore the nerve wracking sensation of his absence. The silence in the back of my mind, the quiet, calculated processing of Alix’s thoughts and emotions no longer available to me – it was awful, but quick, and here, now… I stare at the empty space, my heart aching with every horrible beat. I don’t know. I don’t know when he’ll return, how long it could be – days? Months? ….Years? A cold few tears slip down my cheeks at the very thought, the visions of Rhapsody or Seren’s first steps, without their grandfather there to witness them, of battle without Alix by my side. I couldn’t stand this emptiness for so long, I would go mad, I…
“Cheshire?” The warm voice is Ulkair’s, and it pulls me from my quickly building hysteria. Closing my eyes, I breathe deeply, and then let it out in a trembling sigh, struggling to arrest the spiral. I am being irrational – successful or otherwise, Alix would never allow himself to be gone for years on a fetch quest.
“Yeah?” I murmur finally, my voice coming out much smaller and less confident than I’d intended as I peer up at my lover. He reaches out and wipes away my tears, softly caressing the side of my face.
“He’s the best tracker I’ve ever seen, he’ll be safe and find us a home in no time,” he assures me, wrapping me in his arms, “and in the meantime you have us.”
“I-I know, it’s just… going to take some adjusting to, I think,” I mumble, returning his embrace and squeezing him tightly as another shudder slithers its way down my spine. “I just.. need to keep busy. But, you know, that shouldn’t be a problem, given that… I have more work ahead of me than I could possibly do in a lifetime.”
I let out a nervous laugh, resting my head on Ulkair’s shoulder, and wish that entire sentence hadn’t seemed so disastrous.
When I’ve collected myself, I give Tad Cooper another big hug, and Nighteyes, and then Kat and Agorran, as well, before joining hands with Nerida and Ulkair in the circle. It twists my stomach leave, but I keep my eyes focused hard in front of me and free of tears, lest I be unable to stand by the goodbyes I’ve just said. With a whirl of Eadro’s magic and a soft ‘pop’, we appear in the elemental plane of water, the fortress. I look around at the damp, cluttered stone structure and sigh – it’s certainly a far cry better than it was, but… as I look at the dark, wet walls, and the empty expanse of water beyond the window, it is hard for me to picture ‘home’. I know it won’t always be like this, that hopefully one day soon I will see sunrise and lush flora beyond that window, instead of choking, dark water, and so I try not to let the utter melancholy show on my face.
Turning my attention to Ulkair, I pull on a big smile.
“You fixed the window!” I begin, and before he can respond, Nerida is plucking Seren from my arms, presumably to take him swimming. I reach my hand out to grab hers, to stop her, a rush of indignation at her skewed sense of priority, or perhaps her eagerness to do something which makes me nervous, or, I’m not even sure what, washing over me, but I stop myself, instead clearing my throat. “Nerida?”
She pauses and turns to look at me with a cheerful “hm?”
“I… um, be careful,” I mumble, and continue quickly before she has a chance to tell me how ridiculous I am being, or be insulted by my request, or point out how ‘safe’ the plane is, or that it houses Eadro, “and also… I know you’re probably busy, and um, have your own plans, but… do you think you could um.. help me with something? Later?”
She cocks her head at me, a look of growing concern on her face, “well, I was going to try to start looking for information about Zeph but I suppose I could make some time, what is it that you need?”
“I um, well, it’s just… I wanted to… um, in Sigil, help some people, and uh,” I stumble, suddenly struggling to explain what I thought to be a very simple concept, “and Alix said I shouldn’t go alone, and I-I don’t have the spells I would need…”
Nerida smiles, taking my hand briefly and giving it a quick squeeze, “yes Cheshire, I can help you with that, when would you like to go?”
“Well, um, I was hoping to make it.. a daily thing, maybe after my prayers so I could work in the music hall the rest of the day but I know you won’t have spells yet, so… maybe when you’re done praying?” I ask, peering up at her hopefully, she nods.
“Yes, and… maybe I could get up with you when you pray, watch after the babies,” she offers, and I blink at her, the sudden offer taking me by surprise, “it would give us a chance to spend a little more time together, as well… we haven’t really been able to much lately, have we?”
I beam, nodding excitedly, perhaps too excitedly as I grasp her hand, “I would love that!”
Ulkair groans, throwing his head back dramatically, “well, I suppose if both of you are going to get up early, maybe I should, as well…”
“You don’t have to,” I tease, “I mean… if you want to sleep half your day away, you can…”
He scoffs, crossing his arms, and Nerida giggles, releasing my hand and planting a kiss on Ulkair’s cheek before making her way out of the room with Seren. My stomach twists in another brutal knot as she disappears from view, but I try to assure myself there is no danger for Seren in this water that Nerida cannot handle, and make busy questioning Ulkair about all of the changes and updates he’s made to the structure to keep my mind occupied.
He seems proud of his work, and quite excited, and as we walk the stone halls, he gestures to various things he’s done, explaining them to me in exquisite detail, and then continues to elaborate further on what possible options we have to change or update the fortress, all the various, wonderful, possibly dangerous magical things he can do to it. I admit, seeing him so excited breathes new life into the dreary, musky stone walls, and walking hand in hand through them with Ulkair… they feel much more like home than I’d thought they could just a few minutes ago. We go from room to room with Rhapsody, at least all of the ones in which there is no water, and debate the possibility of a nursery, hosting faux conversations with the infant, who only squeals happily as I gesture with his hands in a mock critique of what could be his room. For a baby, I imagine he has very exacting standards.
I would have thought Nerida to be out swimming with Seren until her heart was content, but of course, that didn’t take into account his demanding feeding schedule. She returns with him, the both of them soaking wet, in just under an hour, and Seren immediately turns on the waterworks when he sees me. Plucking the merbaby from his aunt’s arms, I find a fairly comfortable place to seat myself and nurse him, as doing such a thing standing is getting increasingly difficult.
“I swear you gain five pounds every day,” I mumble to the merbaby, brushing the wet, sticking hair away from his face. He peers up at me only briefly at the contact, clearly much more concerned with his meal than whether or not he is wet, or unnaturally heavy. The rest of our day passes without much event, I eat, a lot, feed the babies, and work on cleaning up a bit of the fortress, finding any way I can to keep busy. It will be tomorrow before we return to Sigil, and I think I should have this conversation with Nerida before then, but every time I see her, my stomach twists, and I lose my nerve.
Loin seems content to spend his time pacing the halls with Selene, or in the bronze dragon’s treasure room, and Nerida, for her part, spends much of the day swimming with Seren in between his many meals, and most of the rest of it with Ulkair, discussing how we will, in fact, move the fortress, and whether or not it will maintain its structural integrity when we do. It’s strange to have so few of us here, I don’t believe our group has ever been quite so small, but with Mimi already back in Sigil, and the others planes away, it is a quiet evening.
As I snuggle down to sleep with Nerida, Ulkair and the babies, the absence of Alix in my mind claws at me, keeping me awake, feeding the paranoia. I hum quietly to the boys as I would any other night, but when they are both fast asleep, it is too terribly obvious it is to soothe my nerves more than theirs. After a long while, I get up and pace, my lovers undisturbed by the motion as I often do so to feed the boys. My mind buzzes with fears, hopes, desperate plans for the future of the faithful, guilt over not being able to bring myself to speak with Nerida, anything I can do to keep myself occupied, and yet, none of the thoughts any more constructive than the passive worry that was my state without my other half. My calmer, wiser, smarter, braver… better, other half.
I softly clunk my forehead against the cool stone wall – how long has it been? Not even a day. Perhaps ten, twelve hours without him, and already I am a mess. My stomach growls at me, though the whining is likely equal parts stress and hunger, I swear I must have eaten only a couple of hours ago, but I am hungry again. If I’d just gone to sleep, I could have slept through the grumbling or the nausea, but then, that would have been sensible. I’m starting to wonder if there isn’t some kind of parasite living just beneath my skin, feeding itself and a brood of its kin on my meals, but I think the culprits are actually rather more tangible and adorable than that, and currently asleep on their father.
Sighing, I dig through my bag for what’s left of the two day supply of food I’d taken from Alix’s – well, Aintai’s kitchen, and munch on the hard, chewy green bread. It is still just as horrible as it’s always been, but part of me wants to save it a little longer, my heart yearning for Byss with every bite. Of course, were I to save this bread for sentimental reasons, I wouldn’t be able to tell it from the mold that it would inevitably grow, and that knowledge makes me much less eager to leave it sitting in my bag.
When my belly is no longer rumbling, and exhaustion is finally claiming my mind, even above and beyond the chaos, I climb back into bed. As soon as my head rests Nerida’s arm, I feel darkness start to creep around me, pulling me into sleep, and a tiny fist grasping my hair. Blinking my eyes back open, I hear Seren’s distinct, hungry fussing, and roll over, wiggling him out of Ulkair’s arms to nurse him – as I had just before we’d laid down for bed. So it must have been the better part of an hour that I was pacing, but even still, I worry how, even with the aid of magic, I will maintain this feeding ritual when I am away.
Day Something Again
When the morning comes, I drag myself from my place between my lovers with reluctance, and go to greet the sun, only to remember, of course, that there is no sun in this forsaken plane. Grumbling, I shuffle up the stairs to the room that houses our bronze dragon friend, knowing that his is a slumber my music will not disturb. I take a place next to him on his tiny mound of treasure, and place Ragnarok over my knees, strumming a soft tune on the silver strings. The melody comes out low and pensive, the room doesn’t have much in the way of acoustics, but it is quiet, and the soft song fills the stone hall.
I sigh, closing my eyes, leaning back and letting the weight drift from my shoulders with the rhythm, Tubatron’s holy power wrapping around me. I reach for it, from the deepest part of my subconscious, cling to it as it begins to rush through my veins, filling the void left in my soul with prayer. It builds in me, soothing my doubts and clearing my mind, and I carefully reflect on what lies ahead of me until my sons’ cries draw my attention from downstairs. They’re awake and hungry.. and so am I.
I get to my feet and head downstairs, where my sleepy lovers await me, snuggling between them, I pick up Seren to nurse him, and gently poke Nerida.
“Nerida,” I whisper, and she groans out her acknowledgment.
“I remember, Cheshire,” she mumbles, and I smile, kissing her cheek. I should have spoken to her yesterday, but perhaps… we could talk on the way to administer in the city, we’ll likely be alone, then.
Nerida conjures breakfast for us, as I’ve eaten through all the food I brought, and she won’t have another planar shift until she’s done praying, but once we’ve all eaten, and Nerida has prayed, it isn’t long until we are back in the foul smelling streets of Sigil.
I thought I’d grown accustomed to the stench, but perhaps I’d only become numb, or my days in the fresh air and sunshine of Byss had simply spoiled me. Ulkair gives us each a kiss, and makes his way toward the market to buy the things he’ll need for his emerald rod… the subject only reminds me of the looming conversation I must have with Nerida, and as Loin and Selene part ways with us, my stomach lurches. We’re alone now, I have no more excuses, and yet, as Nerida takes my hand and we head down the busy, unforgiving city streets, I lose my nerve once again. It’s so… nice to spend time with her, to walk and talk with her without strain, she seems happy, I should be, too.
I haven’t spent any real amount of time alone with Nerida in… a year? Not since the night that Ulkair and Byss were freed. So much has changed since then, it’s all so… complicated and hard, but these moments I spend hand in hand with Nerida take me back. Back to Byss, back to our friendship, our lives before gods, and demons, and fate crushed down on our every action. I never thought anything would be as hard as surviving that first week in Byss was — I had no idea it seems, but Nerida… she was there, she was my ally, even when I was wrong. The memories punish me, hanging in the air around me as a taunt — I wouldn’t have made it without her, I won’t make it without her. I finally have the chance to rekindle some of what we have, and I’m going to ruin it. Every moment that ticks by it looms ever further over me, every second of silence between us becoming more uncomfortable as I try to force myself to break the peace, but can’t.
And so it goes, we administer to the poor of Sigil, feeding them in mass quantity, healing injuries, curing diseases, every morning for a week, we walk the same path, we eat and chat in between my prayers and hers. I work on flyers for the church in the couple of hours we have each morning – Seren “helps”, and even spending more time alone with Nerida than I have in months, I cannot seem to bring myself to say anything. When I am not actively passing out bowls of food, cups of water, or curing injuries, I sit with the people to whom we administer.
I talk, I sing, I do my best to teach. I tell the children stories and play them music to keep their minds from their difficult circumstances – culture, distraction, I know they are secondary needs to food and medical help, but they are still needs. I answer all the questions, dry away all the tears, share all the faith that I can. Many people walk wide circles around me or Nerida, eying us skeptically, or even angrily, but being looked down on by people on the streets, well, that was something I was more than accustomed to. It no longer fills me with fear or distress, and no amount of judgment could outweigh the relief in the eyes of those who do accept our help, or the value of a smile on a struggling child’s face.
We stay every day for a few hours, but it seems no matter how much time or magic we put in, there is always another person in need, another pair of outreaching hands. My heart aches to walk away, but I console it with the knowledge I will come back again tomorrow, and remind myself firmly that I am doing good work, but there is lifetimes of Tubatron’s work ahead of me, and the faithful need me as much as the poor. I arrive at the music hall around noon each day, and I realize with the odd looks that I wreak of poverty – it is undeniable and far from glamorous, so I take to bathing in the afternoon between my time representing us to the poor, and to the rest of the city.
Over the week, Ooze and I have a handful of meetings on our finances and the location of our herald, and our opinions clash, as usual. He maintains we should charge entry to our devotionals, but I can’t shake from my head the memory of that elderly woman, remarking our services were the only nice thing in Sigil the poor could attend for free. Music should be for everyone, not only the wealthy. I, myself, am a far cry from the wealth this city holds as its upper class standard, and I came up from… nothing. And that is what I would still be, had I never heard Tubatron’s song. I leave our first meeting red in the face, my temper hot, my past dogging my footsteps and, I realize after some time, warping my opinions.
Music is for everyone, it shouldn’t be nothing but a tool to make money, but… that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a valid one, and perhaps… we could worry about spreading the love of music through charity when… we had such charity to give. We end up with a compromise, cheaper seating on weekdays and mornings, where any of the faithful may perform, free standing room to listen in the halls, and more premium prices in the evenings and on weekends, times when myself, Ooze, and our other, most skilled performers will be playing. As for Clement, Ooze acknowledges it is strange that he’s yet to return, but according to Declan, he has been gone this long before, and we should organize a search only if he hasn’t returned in a month or so’s time. I’m afraid I know very little of our herald, but that he is of a fiendish bloodline and makes more than his share of bad life decisions, so I accept this verdict. I couldn’t possibly stomp across the planes searching for him on my own anyway, I will have to wait, at least, for Alix to return.
Even with all the work ahead of me, and the accomplishments behind me, the pressure of an unspoken conversation between myself and Nerida continues to mount with each passing day, and one morning, while I am writing flyers and pamphlets for our newly agreed devotional schedules, I finally steel myself to break the silence. Yes, things are alright now, they seem to be back to normal, but… unless I put a stop to it, problems will arise again, and what if… what if they could be better? Alix was always right, always, I remind myself, I can’t leave this hanging between us, taunting me. I can’t let it continue to ruin what would otherwise be wonderful time, just her and I, and… look how much better things worked out when I was willing to talk to Alix. It felt like it would rip out my guts, my heart and my soul and stomp on them to breathe those words to him, but we were better for it, I was better for it.
The most powerful relationships have to go through the most challenges to survive. I quote my father’s words back at myself, wishing for the six hundredth time in a little over a week that I had him here with me, and take a deep breath.
“Um, Nerida… hypothetically,” I begin, peering over at her from my work. She looks at me, amusement and caution battling in her eyes, and her eyebrow raises.
I stop, letting that big, deep breath out in a small sigh. This isn’t hypothetical, or amusing, and if my life has taught me anything besides ‘trust nothing but Alix and music’ lately, it is that I must be more forward with people. My followers need me to be strong and decisive, my god needs me to have a spine, so too, I imagine, must my family.
“Nerida…” I pause, struggling for the right words – honest, unwavering, but gentle. What Alix would say or do.
“Cheshire?” Nerida responds, her brow knitting as she regards me.
Where to start? What to even say? I comb through all of my panic, all of my insecurities, all of her dubious actions and reactions of late, desperately trying to narrow them to one decisive source, one factual truth, free of my hysterical opinion or skewed perceptions, just… something to start, one answer I need above all others, I could work my way to the rest. Fact first – that was most important, I could drown her in my feelings, but what good would it do? They are liable to change at any moment, I have found, and no doubt will with her reasoning for the way she’s treated me, for the things she’s done.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but, I need to know…” I begin, struggling the words out one by one, fear plunging its cold iron fist through my chest to grasp mercilessly at my heart, “why did you lie to me about Ulkair?”
Nerida’s expression doesn’t turn dark as my fears told me it would, but it also doesn’t fall sadly as I thought it might when faced with such a question, instead she cocks her head, confusion taking over her features.
“Well… I… I… asked you, I… more or less begged you to tell him that I needed his help, and…” I trail off, wringing my hands, breaking my eye contact with Nerida as her unrelenting stare becomes harder and harder to meet.
“And… you didn’t. And then you told me that he just didn’t want to see us, and would deal with me in a day.”
My arms and hands tremble, my nerves already shot as I recall the moment, the hurt echoing through my chest, the disbelief that I could be so very unimportant to the father of my sons, the man I loved, that he could turn his back not just on me, but even on Nerida, on all of us, in such a desperate time. The cold acceptance that slithered across my heart, hardening it in the face of grief, the trust I’d had in him slipping away. And then…
“Then Ulkair shows up, and says that you didn’t tell him there was a problem?”
I look back at Nerida, and she is staring at me, mouth ajar, like I’m insane, like this memory of mine, so painful, is absolute news to her. As though she weren’t there, as though it never happened, or she didn’t see?“I tried to!” She snaps, her voice much more harsh and defensive than I’d expected. She seems not confused, but incredulous. “I tried to get him to come here so I could tell him, because I didn’t want to tell him while he
was away in a cave that there was a problem with Elysia!”
Elysia? ELYSIA!? I echo the name in my mind, staring her in the eyes, disbelief tightening my throat. I feel my cheeks heat, my ears burn, and she stares back, indignant as she watches the range of emotions wash over me. I asked you to tell our lover I needed him, and you didn’t, because of Elysia!? Because… Because… WHY!?
She knew, without a doubt, Alix was in pain, in need, that we were in trouble, that Agorran was involved, her entire dream revolved around them, but for one piece. But for the knowledge Elysia might be involved, and somehow, that small possibility, in her mind, outweighed the very real, very tangible agony that Alix and I were in? Staring at me, hearing the desperation in my voice, she still considered that wretched, dead plane more important?
Do I… do I matter to you, Nerida, at all? Does our family!?
I want to scream the words, I want to grab her by the shoulders, shake her, pull her beautiful blue hair from her scalp. For a moment, I want to hurt her, want to make her feel like I do, and I hate myself for it. I bite my tongue, dig my fingernails into my palms, my fists firmly clenched on my lap. I stare at her, white and red fury blurring my vision, and blurt out the least hurtful, most significant words I can muster.
“But there was a problem with ME!”
Elysia aside, that should have been enough.
We should have been enough. If not me, then Alix, or Agorran, but I should have been enough. And I would have been, for Ulkair.
“And now there’s one with me, too.” Nerida states, and my head spins with frustration and confusion – what is that even supposed to mean? This can’t… really be how she feels, she can’t… I take another deep breath, looking away, tears building in my eyes, and try to calm myself. Slinging insults won’t help, screaming won’t help, there must be more to this, I… I know the woman I love is in there somewhere, and she has a softer side, and I can appeal to it, if I just calm down and try.
“I just… I have so few things in my life that I can trust and rely on, and… I want you to be one of them,” I begin, turning back to her to see Nerida stiffen, causing me to stumble over my words. “I… You… I can’t… I don’t need not being able to trust you to be one of my many problems.”
“I’m sorry if…” Nerida begins, and I sigh, relief washing over me. I knew I was being ridiculous, I knew she didn’t want me to feel this way. She couldn’t.
“If in a moment, where I could barely move, ” Nerida continues, her voice dropping angrily, “and I was already falling apart on my own, and struggling with the fact that Ulkair would choose… someone else or to go away or to not be with me, that I didn’t say the right thing.”
I bristle, the anger flaring right back up as Nerida’s false, accusatory apology rakes its way through my ears. Didn’t ‘say the right thing’? What ‘right thing’ did she have to say?! She didn’t even have to think of the words, all she had to say was “Cheshire needs you”, and he would have come!
“I’m sorry–” I bite my tongue, the words to follow too scathing to lead to anything good, and struggle for something else to say when Nerida continues, her voice raising.
“I was hurting too!”
I set my jaw, my eyes still hard on her, and unset it, unable to summon any words but the blistering, furious truth. All this convincing she claims she had to do, she.. she invented it, by insisting she couldn’t tell Ulkair anything unless he was there in person, by making it about Elysia, instead of our family. This pain she was in – she caused it, by trampling Ulkair’s feelings the way she does my own, by being the ridiculous, insistent, uncompromising, stubborn woman that she is.
“I’m not as strong as you think I am,” Nerida murmurs, and I feel my lips tighten into a thin line.
“I realize that.”
The words sound only half as bitter as they taste. Yes, I realize that. Now. Too late. After I made the mistake of leaning on you in the lowest moment of our family’s lives together.
“I guess if you… don’t want to be with me anymore, I would understand,” she says, and I look away, lest my stare get any more unforgiving.
Well, you don’t make it easy, do you?
Alix was right. He’s always right. Nerida… she’s no different than me. She’s huge, she’s terrifyingly powerful, she’s god-touched, beautiful, and above it all, insecure. She’s flawed, she’s young, and stupid and broken, just like me. I take a deep breath, sighing it out as I slowly remove her from the pedestal I’d managed to put her on in my mind, and look back at her, suddenly eye level for the first time in our lives.
“I love you, Nerida, and when you care about people, you don’t just abandon them because they hurt you,” I begin, trying my best to weigh every word against what Alix might say, what was rational and fair, but still true, what I’d want to hear, what I wanted to hear, in a conversation with the person that I needed to be strong for me. “But you did.”
“How did I abandon you?!” Nerida demands, and I knit my brow – is she deliberately misunderstanding me, or have I simply never been so disillusioned that I stopped to see this infuriating side of my lover?
“You didn’t abandon me, Nerida, you hurt me!”
She stares, silent and stubborn, her nostrils flaring, her eyes hard. My stomach twists, this seemingly endless battle of frustration and hurt beginning to tear me at the seams – how had everything gone so wrong so fast?
“There’s no undoing that, and you don’t…” I pause, searching for the words.
Care. At all. My mind fills in as tears build in my eyes. “Seem… to… to think that it was unjustified. So… I guess there’s nothing else to say.”
The last words come out a murmur, and my shoulders slump in defeat as the tears roll down my heated cheeks. Nerida… She is flawed, more than I’d ever given her credit for, and I suppose a consequence of that is how she treats me, how, it seems, she will always treat me. She’s not even sorry. Not so much as a little bit, doesn’t even… care how much it hurt, accidental or otherwise. And how could she, when she’s so busy being angry I had the nerve to question her?
“I think… we’re looking at it very differently,” Nerida says, and I turn to look at her once more.
“Yes. Obviously,” I conclude, trying to keep my tone level, though it comes out low and angry, “because… I see… that I needed you to tell Ulkair three simple words! And you see…. That you were hurt and being petulant, but that justifies not doing that!”
“It wasn’t that I was intentionally not telling him that!” Nerida insists, and I feel my head spin.
In what kind of reality was Nerida living that these words made sense to her? You can’t accidentally not tell someone, to whom you are telepathically linked, ‘Cheshire needs you.” It can’t be unintentional, you either said it, or you didn’t! And even if she had somehow, in the thirty-five seconds from when I spoke to her to when she reached out to Ulkair, forgotten that was the message I asked her to send, she still didn’t admit to me she didn’t tell him that. She still told me that he didn’t want to see her, that he placed whatever stupid, petty argument they had over my desperation.
“I didn’t think ‘Oh, Cheshire told me to say this, so I’m not going to’!” Nerida continues, her tone more mocking with every word. I clench my fists.
Then why didn’t you!?
She didn’t deliberately make me feel like I was utterly unimportant? She wasn’t trying to destroy my relationship with Ulkair? Wasn’t acting out of malice, or jealousy, won’t admit to the petulance of it all? Then what is her excuse?
“I’m sorry that I was weak, for ONE MOMENT–” She begins, and I feel my restraint snap.
“You have been weak for more than ONE MOMENT, Nerida!” I cut in, shaking my head angrily. It is an insult to every person who’s ever been there for her to imply otherwise. It denies Ulkair every moment he ever picked her up when she was down, denies me every inspiration, every encouraging word, every sacrifice I’ve ever made.
Nerida stares at me, her eyes watering, her own fists tight balls at her side. I can see the tremble of fury and depression in her shoulders, I know I’ve cut through all the outer pretense and into the very essence of what Nerida thinks makes her who she is. I take a deep breath, trying to sort through the indignation and the anger, biting back the insults on my tongue, the urge to tear her down three more levels. I sigh, carefully spreading my fingers over my lap to release the fists I’ve made, release the anger they represent. This isn’t about one-upping one another, about laying blame or boosting ourselves at the cost of our lover, even if… that’s what she is trying to do.
“And I… have loved you through all of those moments, and I still do,” I begin, taking another deep breath. I know she can be reasoned with, I know I must be able to make this better. Make her see that all I want is… is us to grow, to talk instead of argue. That I’m not attacking her, only being honest. “But I think that… you’re…. Just… trying to make me a villain that I am not.”
“How have I tried to make you a villain?” Nerida shoots back, and I reach up to rub my temples.
I’m not sure what it is that makes Nerida think the appropriate way to solve this is to repeat everything I say as a question and make me constantly validate myself as though she doesn’t understand the words I am using, but it does not, by any stretch of the imagination, make this easier or better.
Just… own your problems, Nerida! I keep the words in my mind, instead of on my tongue, knowing they would not help her see, only make her more standoffish.
“You’re just awfully defensive,” I manage, and by it I mean, of course, she won’t talk to me, and instead deflects the issue with silence, or counter attacks about how much better than me she is with every word I say. I wait for some kind of response, any sign I might be making progress, but Nerida only continues to give me a silent, infuriating stare. The lid I’d kept on my thoughts twists and grinds with every moment under her gaze, and I dig desperately for a decisive, calm way to express my inner ranting, but the moment I make the mistake of opening my mouth, the floodgates collapse.
“You can’t admit that you were wrong without saying “I’m so sorry I was weak FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE that I wasn’t there for you”! I get that… I am pathetic and I fall apart all the time, and you don’t, and so maybe it doesn’t seem like a big deal to you when it happens anymore, but…” I grind my words to a halt, arresting the outflow before it goes too far in the wrong direction.
Oh, how many times had I been down this road? How many times had I tried to calmly present my feelings to Alix and spiraled this very same way? Dumped on his shoulders a thousand insecurities he shouldn’t bear? Well, I’m Alix now, I remind myself, I’m the one who has to be mature, stay reasonable even though I’m frustrated, and this isn’t about piling my insecurities on Nerida, who has plenty of her own. “I have to rely on people, Nerida. And… the few times you have ever had to rely on me, I… I like to think that I was there for you.”
I look at her, searching her gaze for any sign that she understands or agrees with what I’m saying. That I’m reaching her at all, that she cares, or realizes why saying “I’m sorry I was weak one time” is hurtful, and wrong, and villainizes me instead of taking responsibility. A long, horribly uncomfortable silence falls between us, and I struggle not to break it, knowing if I start talking again, I likely won’t be able to stop, and will only give her more reasons to question me, instead of speaking her own piece.
“I like to think I have been there for you,” Nerida says finally, “but evidently I was wrong.”
The words hit me like a depressive wave, and I sigh, hanging my head and shaking it.
So, you can’t admit to one mistake, can’t bring yourself to be sorry when you slap our relationship right in the face with lies and pettiness, but you can sit here and say nothing you do is right?
I wonder bitterly if this is really how I make Alix feel every time I refuse to take credit for something he says I did. If everyone around me views me as this mopey, hypocritical misery, but then I realize that at least, for all my likely infuriating insecurities, I can admit to my failures. And Nerida, she clearly can’t, so this talk… it’s pointless.
“You know Nerida… You are impossible to talk to.”
“What do you want from me?” Nerida demands, and I only shake my head again, “I feel like everything I’m saying is the wrong thing.”
That’s because all you ever had to say was I’m sorry. I conclude, bitterly grinding my teeth and staring at the floor as I search for the words. Any words. Some way to make her understand without just giving her the out she clearly wants.
“I…. I don’t know.” I mumble finally – what I want seemed easy, a chance to make things better, to be treated equally, to be given an apology I thought I deserved. Clearly it was not, and none of that would fix this now, even if she said it. I don’t even know what would fix this now, or if anything could.
“I try so hard to be everything that you need,” Nerida continues, finally willing to speak, although she becomes increasingly hysterical with every word, “To never tell you what’s wrong because I see you’re already falling apart under everything with the church, and what you have going on –”
“I never asked you to not tell me what was wrong!” I snap, and she again does nothing but stare at me. “I share my problems with you! Why can’t you share yours with me!? N-Not just your problems, Nerida, why can’t you share your victories with me!? You couldn’t have told me you were going to Elysium to make something for Ulkair!? You had to just say you’d be gone for a day and then be gone for five!? And then… not understand why I was worried or upset, because.. because.. it was AMUSING to you! But you don’t think you can trust me with a petty secret!”
Nerida only stares, and I try to breathe deeply again, arrest the spiral, lower my voice, do anything, but the lid is gone, a sob the only thing that breaks my rambling.
“And everything I say to you… You just…..! I say “you hurt me” and you say “well I understand if you don’t want to be with me anymore”, I say: Nerida, you failed me, and you say “well I fail at everything!” I say “Nerida, I don’t think you can understand how much PAIN Alix is in right now”, and you say “well apparently I don’t understand anything !” How is that fair?! I mean…”
My head spins, my vision blurred by tears and fury, so much frustration, and all that greets me on the other end of it – Nerida’s stupid, silent, stubborn fucking stare.
“Grow UP, Nerida!” I finally scream, realizing with more every word how incredibly hypocritical I am, how infuriating, how broken, and senseless, and stupid I have been. What a saint my father is, for his patience while I do these things to him, for not slapping me, for never showing the anger I’ve just displayed toward Nerida, never wanting to shake me, and pull out my hair, and how incapable I am of being him.
“Sometimes, things CAN happen in moderation! And… Ulkair can love you, and be attracted to someone else without it being a risk to you! And… you can do something wrong without everybody… wanting… to leave you.”
Sighing, I put my head in my heads and wipe away some of the tears that blur my vision. “Because we are family. I love you, and I wish I knew what it is that makes you incapable of trusting me, or ever asking me for my help.”
I stop to breathe, my hands tangled in my bangs, and after a long pause, Nerida finally mumbles, “all my family has ever done is leave me.”
“Well, mine too,” I whisper back, the words rolling off my tongue with a bitter taste. I bring my knees up to my chest, hugging them close in a desperate bid for the security I’ve lost in Alix’s absence – I miss him so much. I… I can’t be him, I don’t know how. I’m not strong, and patient, and unendingly wise, I… I don’t know how to be the grounding force Nerida needs.
“You know, I think sometimes you feel like… I love Alix more than I do you, but.. the truth is.. I just… need him,” I whisper, my heart aching for my absent father more with every word. “Because… before him, my life was nothing but garbage and blackness, because no one in the world would have fought for me… He is the first person, in my ENTIRE life, who ever told me he loved me, Nerida. At least… and meant it. ”
“B-But… I don’t have that family anymore, and you don’t have that family anymore, and Aine didn’t leave you, and Mayra didn’t leave you by choice, and… we’re trying to find Zeph, and we’re trying to find your parents, but I can’t try to find my family, Nerida, because my family doesn’t want me to find them! My family wasn’t kidnapped and taken away by a sorcerer! They just. Hated me. And… without you all, without Alix, I am nothing. I am faceless, worthless trash.”
Unable to meet Nerida’s gaze any longer, I hide my face in my knees. I feel my chest constrict and dig my fingers into my arms as the truth crushes down on me, memories of my family, of my life stealing the air from my lungs. They flood, unopposed, to the forefront of my mind, no Alix there to counter them, no shield to hold them at bay. I… I need him, so much. I sob into my knees, and lift my head only to mumble a few more words.
“So when I say that I need someone…. I mean it. And when I say that I love someone, I mean it. Because if I didn’t… I would be too afraid to ever utter those words to anyone.”
Nerida says nothing still, but the silence allows me time to compose myself, and I with a shaky sigh, I try to pull some response out of her.
“I just think that…. We don’t have anything if we can’t trust each other,” I conclude, and finally Nerida mumbles.
“It’s never been that I don’t trust you.”
“Really? Because…. Sometimes you grab me, and you stare at me so hard… I… I feel like… you’re trying to fish my soul out of my body, and most recently, you did this when I said that “I love you, and I trust your magic”, and… and before that, it was when I was dominated by Typhon! So… I can only assume that you somehow equate my trust of you with my… trying to overcome an aboleth’s magic!? And that doesn’t make sense! And… you don’t tell me… ANYTHING. Until I pry it out of you. And when Ulkair leaves, and there’s a problem… I…. I can’t blame you for making a blanket fort, Nerida, but… what would you have DONE if I hadn’t come in and pried and asked you what happened? How long would you have been in that blanket fort, and Ulkair in his cave!?”
“I actually would have probably plane shifted, and tried to crawl to his cave,” Nerida says simply, as though she did not hear a single word I just said, or they simply meant nothing to her. “Because I don’t know that I could have walked.”
“But you would have done it ALONE! WHY!?” I cry back, the skin of my arms breaking beneath the force of my nails, “you could have ended up… three hundred miles away from him, and I’d have come into our room expecting to see you all cuddling and praying and NEITHER of you would have been there, and meanwhile, there was a REAL problem!”
Nerida says nothing, only looks at me, as though she can’t figure out why she isn’t winning this argument, in spite of disregarding my every point and changing the subject at her whim. I sigh, letting my head fall helplessly back against my knees. As badly as I want to get through to her, this isn’t the way, it can’t be. Because nothing I say matters.
“I know nobody’s perfect, I’m not here to beat you up about every mistake you’ve ever made, it’s just that… you’re right, there’s a lot riding on my shoulders. It’s not just the temple, it’s our future. It’s the hundreds of years I apparently have ahead of me that I will be doing this for, I’m laying groundwork for what will literally be the rest of my life,” the words are suddenly horrifyingly real. The rest of my life. My very, very long life. The fact that I’d shoved to the side in favor of the here and now, the future. The long… lonely future. “I won’t always have you all, but while I do… I would like to at least have you.”
Another sob wracks my chest, and I stare at the wall, breathing unevenly as I force out my next words, sentences broken by weeping and nervous laughter.
“Because I don’t… I don’t know what I’ll do when Alix drives himself into an early grave with liquor, and… and I don’t know what I’ll do when you go… become a fish, and whisper secrets into Eadro’s ear for eternity. And I don’t know what I’ll do, when being without you slowly drives Ulkair mad! And I have nothing but myself and the faithful… for whom… I have to find a place in the universe.”
“Well that’s why I don’t tell you my problems,” Nerida mumbles, “I’m worried I will bury you alive.”
“I’ve got hundreds of years to dig my way out, apparently,” I whisper back, my voice broken by tears and bitterness, “and I would rather know that there is a problem than not be told until it is way too late. Because all secrets do is build more distrust… and I am already so mistrusting, that I almost damned my uncle’s soul for eternity because I was afraid to let him touch Rhapsody. I am so distrusting that I can’t be genuinely happy that Alix has found someone he loves because… because… what if he loves her more than me?”
We suffer another terribly long pause before Nerida responds, her voice bitter. “I’m sorry I’ve let you down.”
“I just think…. Maybe this was fine in Byss, because everything was fine in Byss, but we have so much external strain now, that… we can’t not be able to trust each other,” I murmur, rubbing my eyes to once again attempt to free them of tears, “and we can’t be fighting all the time, and I can’t be angry, or afraid of you.”
“You’ve been angry and afraid of me this whole time?” Nerida asks, her feelings indiscernible by her tone.
“No!” I answer quickly, glancing at her before hiding my face back in my knees, “but… sometimes, yes. Which I guess isn’t fair, but… you are really hard to talk to.”
I glance at Nerida once again, who only stares at me, her lips a thin line, and sigh, desperate to lighten the mood somehow. “And… you could crush my head like a sparrow’s egg.”
“But I never would,” Nerida immediately retaliates, which makes it clear she found no humor in my words.
“Well… That’s good, and I would never leave you.”
“Why?” She demands, and I frown a little more, unsure of how to answer such a question. Why? Why would I?
Why, after everything we’ve been through, would I leave her now? How, after facing down death, and fire, and shadow and everything in between, could I possibly turn my back on her? Again I am struck with the memories of my conversations with Alix, with how many doubts I’ve had, when we’ve faced the same, and more, and I put my head in my hands.
“Nerida…. If I were going to leave you, there would have just been way better times to do it than now, don’t you think?” I offer, and her eyes narrow.
“You have never told me why you love me,” she says, a strange suspicion in her voice I can’t seem to understand, “and I thought it was… because I was strong, but evidently I’m not.”
She closes her eyes, tears slipping past her soft black lashes to roll down her cheeks, and my heart aches as finally a sob breaks her insufferably silent staring. “And if I’m not strong, I don’t know what I am. It’s easy to be brave when you have nothing to lose, and I have never had more to lose.”
I sigh, crawling over to her space and wrap my arms around her in the biggest hug that I can.
“Nerida… you are strong. You’re not strong all the time, you’re not perfect. You do have a lot to lose, we ALL do,” I explain softly, running my fingers through her silky blue hair, all urges I’d had to pull it out gone in a flash of sadness. My frustration melts away as I desperately try to console her, to make her see sense, and see herself as the wonderful person I know she can be.
“You know, I… I feel like, you all thought I was scared to go to the Abyss with you, and… you were not wrong, but… I wasn’t scared for me. I was scared for them,” I release her to gesture briefly to our children, “what happens to Seren and Rhapsody if I don’t come home? And their wet nurse leaves them, after twelve hours? But that’s… why we have each other, that’s why we have Ulkair, and Alix, and Loins, and Mimis, because…”
I let out a sad chuckle as I speak our celestial companion’s name, still hoping to lighten the incredibly heavy conversation just a little.
“Because, man, every other word out of her mouth insults me, but… she’s good at killing things! I don’t want to stay with you because you’re strong, Nerida, there are lots of strong people in the world, if I… only wanted power, I could be on Vhailor’s arm!”
Nerida sniffles, a small smile creeping across her face as she responds.
“Hey, I killed Vhailor, that’s a bad example.”
I shudder as the sound of shattering bone and tearing flesh plays between my ears, the sound of Alix’s skull collapsing beneath Vhailor’s fist. I close my eyes to try and chase away the memory, but I only see the splashing of blood.
“But no… No,” I manage, shaking my head, “see, that’s not a bad example, because Vhailor was strong. But that’s all he was, and that’s why we defeated him. That’s why we defeat everything we come across, because… by all means, we shouldn’t. Nerida, we shouldn’t be ALIVE, we shouldn’t WIN, when we do, but we do. And when we lose… it isn’t because we’re weak, it’s because we did our best, and that just wasn’t enough.”
“Then what else is there?” Nerida asks, and I desperately scrape at the edges of my mind for a suitable answer.
“Making your best… better?” I offer, “continuing to try? Taking those nine out of ten wins, and calling it a day? I couldn’t save Tad Cooper and his mate, but I saved Tad Cooper? I couldn’t save my uncle and my aunt, but I saved my aunt? I… I can’t stop Alix from ever drinking, but… I stopped him two days… out of ten. That’s.. something. And… you can’t… you can’t communicate every single time you need to, but every time that you do is one more time you didn’t fail?”
“Is there… something in particular you want me to communicate for you?” Nerida presses, still searching for whatever key phrase it is she believes will get her out of this.
I sigh, my hopes for this entire conversation finally slipping away with the air that escapes my lungs. I can’t even seem to remember what exactly those hopes were, what point I’d been trying to make, but I’d settle if she could understand just this one.
“No, Nerida… Just in general, I feel like… this is a good skill for you to work on,” I murmur, resting my chin on her shoulder, “I know you don’t like asking for help, I practically had to SHACKLE myself to you for you to take me to Zissyx. And… maybe you regret that decision… But, sometimes… You have to ask for help. You have to, because if you don’t, you die alone. Which is why I ask for help… every day. Because if I didn’t, I would die. Alone. Probably a horrible death. I hate asking for help, Nerida. I hate being the most miserably useless person I know. I can’t feed poor people alone, because they could KILL me.”
“There are a lot of them..?” Nerida offers with a sniffle, and I hang my head – still missing the point, completely.
“But a lot of them couldn’t kill YOU! Because they’d still be malnourished, crippled, poor people! And a lot of malnourished, crippled, poor people shouldn’t be a frightening threat, but… it is to me."
“Well… I just have more area magic than you do,” Nerida points out, and I stare at her, exasperated.
“You’re RIGHT! Because I don’t have ANY!”
“Well… my magic’s just a little bit stronger than yours,” Nerida offers, at least no longer so standoffish, “that’s not your fault…”
“No, you’re right, because you’re great at magic, and I’m okay-ish at magic,” I sigh, resting my chin on her shoulder, “and I… I’m great at music, and you’re okay– well, actually, I think you’re great at music, too, but the point is that…. At the end of the day, there’s a very, very small chance that my singing will stop someone from killing me. And there’s a much greater chance that my singing will lead them to hunt me down and try to rape and devour me! I mean.. I don’t… like having to bother you at six am so I can go feed poor people, I don’t like having to find Alix wherever I go, whether I need to sleep, or make a sandwich, or take a freaking walk. I don’t like getting taken advantage of every single TIME I walk into a store!”
I sigh, and then take another deep breath, pulling my rambling back in to my point, “but that is my lot in life, and unless I ask Declan to shop for me, and Alix to make sure that…. there’s no horrible death waiting for me at the end of that sandwich, and you to talk to Ulkair for me, and Ulkair to teach me about the planes so I don’t blow myself up trying to do something stupid for my god, and… it’s just… something that you have to get used to.”
“My life has always been doing my best, and being enough,” Nerida retorts, “and when I haven’t been, people have died.”
“Well, Nerida… twelve days ago, you were not enough,” I state, keeping my tone as level as possible, “and I didn’t die. Twelve days ago, none of us were enough. You and I and Alix and Aadya, and Mimi and Loin and all of us were not enough to come out unscathed. You can’t change that. You can make it… better. By being together, by safety in numbers, by learnin–”
“Safety in numbers didn’t save Caspian.” Nerida cuts in, stealing the air from my lungs as I let out a frustrated sigh, my mind filling in my unfinished sentence.
….From your mistakes…
“It saved me. It saved Ulkair, it saved you, and Mimi and Loin and Alix,” I retort, unable to reach her any other way but to simply over state the obvious, “and you know, if Caspian had been alone, she’d have died, and there wouldn’t have been anything or anyone to bring her back.”“If she hadn’t come with us at all, she never would have died,” Nerida shoots back, and I feel my brow knit. How have I never, in over a year, realized how impossibly stubborn and small-minded Nerida is before?
“Yeah, and if I hadn’t gone after Alix, you never would have stabbed me to death,” I respond, exasperation coloring my tone more than I’d have liked it to, “and I would have still been the person that wouldn’t have
minded being stabbed to death, because I wouldn’t have Alix. If you never take a risk, you get no reward.”
That’s why I’m talking to you. I add mentally, running my fingers through my hair as I continue to struggle to communicate my point to my lover. You can only learn from your mistakes if you own them!
“But you can learn to recognize when you’re not enough, and get help. I reached out to you because I knew that I was not enough to deal with whatever horror was on the other end of Alix’s life.”
“And which of you can help me be an oracle?” Nerida challenges, again dodging the subject, refusing logic at every corner, but perhaps… sharing with me an insecurity, a problem, finally, that I should not disregard, regardless of whether or not it is a subject that I have… any knowledge of.
“I can’t help you be an oracle, Nerida,” I admit, letting out a defeated sigh, “but… I can help you sift through your dreams, I can help you not feel crazy, I can help you not be afraid. I hope I can inspire you. And… Eadro will guide you, I am certain.”
Because… this is what he wants from you. I add, deciding to keep the words to myself, lest they start another fight I’m not prepared to take part in. It’s what he’s been grooming you for from the first time he noticed you.
This is simple truth, and not at all unlike Tubatron’s plans for me – to be his high priestess, to lead his faithful. Of course, Tubatron’s call does not seem to be as directly threatening to my well being as Eadro’s does for Nerida, but I am in no position to question whether or not Nerida’s god has her best interests at heart.
“I have found… that when you are on the path that your god desires for you, it’s not always easy, but it eventually becomes clear,” I offer, trying to keep my advice as neutral as possible, “and I am certain Eadro would not have given you this power if he didn’t want you to use it for him.”
“I know he does,” Nerida says, “I just don’t know…. To what end.”
“I think that… is impossible to know, even as an oracle. Our gods’ scope is much larger than ours. And I understand that this is something… you maybe can’t talk to Ulkair about so much, but… that’s what I’m here for,” I take Nerida’s hand, offering her as reassuring a smile as I can, “You think I don’t understand what it is to be in boots you don’t know how to fill? Because I mean.. I could stuff our bed spread into my shoes, and they still would have too much space.”
“And how do I stop myself from going crazy? How do I know what’s real and what’s not? I woke up from that dream and I thought I was awake, I could not tell. I clung to Ulkair’s chest and felt his hand on my face, I felt Selene crush my throat and I thought I had died. How many more times will that happen? How long before I cannot tell what’s a dream and what’s real?”
“You’ll always have me to tell you what’s a dream and what’s real,” I offer, holding her hand tighter, but the answer does not seem to satisfy her fears.
“Unless I dream about that!” She objects, and I knit my brow – is she… joking?
“I feel like… that’s a very obscure vision and not very likely…. Wouldn’t it be a waste of Eadro’s holy magic to give you a vision that was just me telling you the vision was real and not a vision?”
“It could be my mind,” Nerida insists, increasingly hysterical with each theory, “he said my fears taint everything. And if I fear that I’m going crazy–”
I take Nerida’s other hand in mine as well, putting them to my chest and meet her gaze intently to stop her spiraling rant.
“Nerida… everyone’s fears taint everything,” I explain, “when I stay awake too late, the shadows in our room smile at me with a rictus grin. When I see Loin walking with that accordion, I… I assume nothing good can come from it. I used to love the accordion, I was pretty good at playing it. It was the first instrument I played, or loved, and I will never hear a single note on an accordion again without wanting to claw. My. Own. Skin off. If that isn’t fear tainting something, then I don’t know what is. That’s not oracular insanity, Nerida, that’s…. survival instinct.”
Fear keeps us alive. Fear lets us know when we are in danger. Embrace your fear, and what it teaches you, but never give it control.
Alix’s words echo in my mind, but before I can speak them to her, Nerida scoffs.
“Well it’s a little bit harder when you have to look at everything, and know what it means, and know whether it’s important, or… it’s just someone picking up a plate.”
The words are brusk, challenging, almost sarcastic, as if they didn’t clearly enough say ‘my fears are more legitimate than yours, and my problems are bigger’, her tone certainly did.
You’re just being difficult now… I feel my lips purse, but try to remain impartial.
“You’re right,” I manage, though the words hurt a little with every syllable, “and maybe you’re not good at that yet, but… I’m sure you will become good at it. And if you don’t, then we will chase all of the plate picking up people, for the REST of your life. Nerida, I don’t have all the answers… but…. We can try to find them? I can try to help you find them. I know what it’s like to be insane, Nerida, I do. ”
“So what if I don’t want to subject you to it?” Nerida asks, and a wry smile creeps across my features, but manage to keep in the laugh – her? Subject me to insanity? Perhaps she has tasted Ulkair’s, sharing a mind with him, but she has simply no idea.
“I… don’t think it’s avoidable.”
“I’m sorry I stared into your soul when I got back to Byss after Typhon,” she blurts out suddenly, shifting to grasp my hands in hers. It was not the apology I expected, or… needed, or even wanted, really, but it clears the air a little. I sigh, resting my forehead against her arm.
“I… I’m sorry I let Typhon take over my mind,” I whisper, although Tubatron knows I’d spoken the apology countless times before. “I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“I know that. I never believed you wanted to hurt me,” Nerida murmurs, although I can’t help but doubt the truth of the statement anymore, “I just… had a dream, on the way to the city, and I had to see that your eyes were not so cold. Even before oracular visions, ever since Dovev attacked the temple, and even more since Elysia, my dreams have been very, VERY vivid.”
It would be a lie to say I wouldn’t have rather gone without knowing that fact. Thinking Nerida doubted that I had shaken Typhon’s very powerful, frightening domination was… a kinder illusion than thinking she doubted my intentions for her because of some dream. But at least now I know, possibly more than I ever wanted to, what it takes to shake us.
“Well, I know a thing or two about vivid nightmares,” I mumble, shuddering as the words ghost an icy set of ghoul’s fingers down my spine, “they’re not oracular, but… I will tell you the same thing I told Alix. Which is that… when your nightmares twist your reality.. I will be there to set it straight again, if you let me.”
“But my nightmares ARE my reality,” Nerida insists, “Agorran was being controlled.”
“You’re right, your nightmares can be truthful, and… those nightmares we can solve,” I offer. Truthfully there is no solving a nightmare that makes her think my eyes cold and dead, no solving memories that dance through our dreams, but at least, if they are warnings, we can heed them. “Other ones, you just have to not let them have power over you, and I don’t know how you’re going to sort through them, but I’m sure we’ll figure it out.”
“I haven’t had one for a week now,” Nerida says, sniffling ever so slightly as she calms, “it’s a new record.”
“That’s a good record to keep,” I whisper, giving her hand another reassuring squeeze, “maybe it will be longer.”
We talk awhile longer, an uneasy peace falling between us, before we go about our daily routine. I don’t see hide nor hair of Ulkair all morning, and I can’t help but suspect he is avoiding us, or… perhaps me. I wonder if he could simply hear our yelling and has decided to steer clear for awhile, or if maybe… he got a rather slanted perspective of our argument from his mental bond with Nerida. Sighing, I gather up my flyers, sons, and a change of clothes, stuffing all but the babies into my very average bag of not holding with some difficulty. I suppose I’d taken the magical artifact for granted, but it was incredibly inconvenient to have to actually have enough space for everything I wanted to carry in a day. Strapping Rhapsody to my chest, and Ragnarok to my back, I take Nerida’s hand, and she shifts us to Sigil.