16 - Truthtellers

...It has been a long day. I've a tent to sleep in, now. I'm staying with the Armed, writing in my journal before I sleep. The Peacock King, Ebrellen-i, has something to attend to right now, so he won't miss my presence.

That's for the better, anyway. If I'd stayed with him tonight...

Well, I guess I wouldn't have time to write this, now would I?

When I left off last time, he took me to meet the tree. Zalriadri-tchillseh-driall. I'm surprised I even remembered the name. As it is, I'm sort of guessing at the spelling. It was pretty easy to feel out, though. Somehow, it feels like it rings right. Maybe I'm just good with names and I don't know it.


She was the King's first. This is something he's waited to show me for awhile, it seems. And I wish I remembered more of the encounter. But as I took her hand and bent to kiss the back of it, I began to see things in the back of my head. It didn't overlay my vision, or I likely would have given away through my actions and distraction that something was wrong. It was like hearing something down the hall while you hold a normal conversation.

No, while the King introduced me to his first tamed spirit, his first conquest, one of his prides...I began to see my brother. And I kept that in the back of my head, let it play out while I went on with my business. I saved it until now, when I can finally lay out what happened on that other side, when I can finally look through it and pin it down.

Gerald was tired. Slumped in his chains, sore, eyes hooded and head sagging. Like the last time I saw him, except more exhausted than bored. I expected him to slip into sleep at the next moment, but the creak of a door swinging on its hinges jerked him awake. He looked up to Cade walking through the door of his cell, a cigarette in his hand, and men at his back.

Gerald's eyes followed the man, or whatever you might label Cade as, without blinking. His jaw was set firm, no expression on his face beyond focus and a growing stubborn anchoring of his will. I've seen that expression on my Father's face before. In an odd way, it gave me confidence that things would be okay. Father always gets his way. Always.

Cade hunched down, knees bending until he was looking at Gerald on his eye level. He took a puff of his cigarette, savored it for a moment, then exhaled through his teeth. A tendril of smoke managed to drift to Gerald's nose. My brother's lip coiled. He blew the smoke away from him.

The man only grinned. "I knew you'd say that." He gestured for one of his men outside the cell to come in by waving the other hand. There was an old leather whip coiled up in it. Gerald paid it no mind.

"...So." Gerald raised a nonchalant eyebrow at Cade. "I suppose you've a purpose in interrupting my beauty rest." His eye twitched as another coil of smoke brushed against his face. Cade's face brightened up from the reaction. The man walked up behind where he hunched, then dangled something over his shoulder. It shined. I saw Gerald startle at it.

It was different than a pair of handcuffs. They reminded me very much of something the Peacock King would keep. Too shiny, almost decorative. Handcuffs would be iron or steel - these were silver, maybe even platinum. Cade took them, dangled one cuff from each index finger, playing with them. His grin grew as he watched light play over the links.

The other two men walked into the cell. One of them had a ring of keys that I knew had to be the King's.

Gerald humphed. "What do you think you're going to do with that?"

Cade's eyes glittered. "I just think you need to be kept somewhere more secure, is all. The Peacock King will thank me when he comes back. If I'd left you here, likely one of his servants would have made a slip and let you escape." He reaches forward, grabbing Gerald under the chin, lifting up. "We can't have that, now can we, boy? We've only just begun to have fun. You need a better place to sleep, anyways. I can even provide you a bed." After that, it's hard to tell what happened. I saw Cade reach back and then hit Gerald in the head. I saw another of the men come up and lay another blow on him. I even saw the red jewel in Gerald's collar flash. After that, black. If what I see is dependent on my connection to Gerald, then I suppose if he's unconscious, I can't see anything.

I would be more worried now, if I didn't see more than that.

There was the slightest faded-in impression of lying on a bed, sometime after that. By the time I saw it, we were back in the carriage and I was making idle chatter with the King. I don't even remember what we spoke of. Mostly his trees, his holdings. I was feeding his ego very thoroughly. It kept him from noticing that I was troubled by something.

It was when we were making camp this evening that I finally saw anything further than that. Gerald woke up in his bed. His arms were cuffed above his head again, to the two corners of the bed there. His ankles were cuffed to the corners on the other end. He was dizzy. He was conscious of the fact that more had been done to him than mere beating. He felt like he was falling, and like he was floating at the same time. He felt like he was spinning. Like if he leaned to one side, the bed would lean with him too. He felt most of all like he should close his eyes and let himself get pulled under, just so the world would stop rocking.

He did not. He looked to the side. He felt Cade watching him. The man was a blur sometimes, sometimes shifting from one side to the other. But he was there. Sitting at a desk, a pipe to his lips now, looking up at Gerald as he wrote something with a quill. It was strange - the quill tapered to grey near its tip, and began to twist and curl in a way that didn't look natural.

Gerald's brows drew together in anger. "You stole that." The words were low and quiet, calm in a way that spoke more of rage than shouting would. Cade only smiled brightly and laid down the quill.

"Maybe its owner just forgot to say he gave it to me." He cocked his head. "Do you miss him? Or did you even hear? You Poets get the news much slower than you think you do." He tossed a hand up, waving the issue away. "No matter. You'll meet him soon enough. After you've had your stay here." He saw Gerald's anger rise. "Oh, am I not going to be able to just brush away the issue like that?" He stood in a sweeping motion that was much faster than I expected, but Gerald did. Within seconds, Cade was leaning down, inches from his face.

"Do you have a problem, Poet?" His breath stank of tobacco and chewed cloves. Gerald coughed, as much as he tried to repress the reaction.

"Where is Elric." It's not even a question. It's a statement, as heavy and cold as lead. Cade blinks.

"...Safe." He smiled. "But far away, for now. Maybe you should behave yourself, if you'd like that to change at all. Or if you want his condition to remain the same." He drug up a chair, then sat, raised an eyebrow. Inhaled from that curious long-stemmed pipe. "Some position you're in to help him, though. Do you just want a friend? You have plenty, where you'll be going. Elric might even join you there." He grinned, end of the pipe clamped between his unnervingly wide teeth.

Gerald is silent for a moment. I could see that he was thinking hard about his next choice of words. I know it had to be hard to interrogate from the position he's in. It's really hard to tell who was doing the real grilling, in fact. "Why should I believe you have any of them? We've recieved no reports to lead me to believe it." It's odd. I can tell striaght away that he was lying as I write this, even though his language didn't give it away, through his voice or his body.

Cade's eyes narrowed, his smirk grew thoughtful. "Hmph. As if your organization's reports meant anything. You all think you know what's really going on in the world." His eyes shone like a magpie who's just found a particularly alluring bit of foil. "I know what's going on, at least. You'll soon know more, of course, because of where you'll be going." He tsks, shook his head. "But...I'll let the King say goodbye to you, first." He reached down, poked his thumb against Gerald's forehead, and pressed. "Now go to sleep, darling. He'll be back to kiss you goodbye in a few days."

It was the creepiest thing I think I've ever heard in my life, coming from his mouth. Gerald jerked, his mouth opening to let out a cry. A pain sparked through his forehead, like it was being burned. Then his eyes went wide, and everything blurred. The moment hung there. Everything felt slow, loose.

Cade blew a puff of smoke into his face.

Darkness came over Gerald slowly, like being pushed down into layers of thick blankets until the covers crept over his head. Then he was out. Then he was truly asleep.

...I'm shaking. It takes me a couple of moments to calm my hand enough to keep writing. I'm not done yet. Still, I break for a few minutes, as I've been handed a mug of tea to calm my nerves.

I was right. I couldn't have written this if I'd stayed with the Peacock King. It's because he'd have felt that something was wrong. I'm too afraid now. I hear Camden telling me to calm down, firm up. It's unsettling to write things like this, but he says the only way to help is to keep focused and keep moving forward. He's right.

We're at our destination now. It didn't take as long as I expected, considering that the trip was to be for several days. It turns out that the King expects to stay here for at least a day and a half. Once we arrived, he left the wagon and proceeded alone, telling me to stay with our guards for the night.  I wasn't sure of what to reply to him. Before I could think of anything, the girl with the falcon looked up to the King.

"Sire? May Tambor'in hunt on these lands?" It was the first time I'd heard her speak. The King looked down at the girl. She was so much smaller than him. She was smaller than me, even. Her falcon was even petite. Her voice, though, was clear and confident, even though it was low in volume.

He smiled, something I didn't quite expect. His demeanor had turned more serious once we reached the valley. "Tambor'in, is it? Surely she may hunt the lands outside of the Valley of Hespiredes. But do not allow her to fly into it or you will lose her. The same goes for any other animal of yours." He looked up to the whole group. "You may hunt here for what is needed, though my supply wagon is open to you as well." He then turned and left.

Camden looked down to the girl with the falcon. He tilted his head. "Rachella? Is there something the King has said that bothers you?" The girl looked back up to him.

"Tambor'in wouldn't leave me, even flying out that far." She frowns as Camden makes a knowing smile.

"He did not mean to imply that you were inadequate in training your bird, Rachella. He only meant to warn you of the properties of that valley." He points out to it. "There are no wild animals in there. Perhaps you have not been taught the story yet...though I would find that strange." His voice is a bit quieter at that last part, and his eyes skirt over to me. I wonder if I'm not exactly welcome to hear this conversation, but it would look awkward to leave, now. And...there's really no one else to go to besides stinky horse drivers or the few servants the King brought with him. They don't even have any fashion sense.

Rachella's eyes widen just a little as she seems to realize something. "Animals who enter the valley as well? I thought only the animals that were already in it went...strange." She looks down at her falcon, her face growing a little more horrified at the thoughts going through her head. I can't blame her. What Camden said is starting to fully become clear to me. Every animal that is ever in the valley, not just the ones who were there when Hespiredes was tamed. Every bird that flies over. Every deer that wanders in. Every one of them, tame and obedient, all the wild driven out.

The King can have the Valley. I don't want to go in there. I don't want to see what's become of the fauna inside. Rachella is thinking the same thing, I can tell. Maybe we all are.

Camden sighs, then shakes his head, fingers splayed above the wire rims of his glasses. "Let's make camp, girls." It takes me a moment to realize that he's not referring to me as well.

...Then he looks back over his shoulder at me as they begin to walk to their horses, and I realize that he is.

Rachella and I found firewood together in a nearby stand of trees. She giggled as I grunted and gasped at the manual labor. "Silly boy. I'm tinier than you and I can carry twice as much."

I sigh, trying to blow a strand of hair from my eyes and failing miserably. "That's because you're a girl."

She giggled, amber eyes merrily shining. "Oh? And what's that supposed to mean, boy?"

I lean down, wince at the ache growing in my back, and pick up another small limb. "It means that girls are smarter and stronger than any boy ever was, and if I say otherwise, both my sisters will come and beat me." She giggles so hard at that that she begins to drop sticks.

We start to build the fire together, but soon Camden walks over, looks at what we're doing, and begins to tsk. "No, not like that. Like this." He begins to stack the sticks and limbs in a more orderly manner than we had. I see Rachella paying close attention...and blushing very hard from the correction. I suppose fire-building must be one of her duties.  She's so very studious about following his instructions, though.

Camden looks up at me, his eyes narrowing a bit as he focuses through his glasses. "You've been with us for awhile now. Why are you staying here? The King's carriage has many more comforts than we can offer you." His eyes flick over my clothing as he says this. I realize that my traveler's garb isn't exactly the rugged wear that's expected for trail living. It's really just high fashion with a serviceable touch. I only smile and shrug.

"I like your company. I'm sorry, should I leave? I can, if you'd like."

"No!" Rachella cuts in before Camden can voice his reply. She shrinks down a little under his gaze, looking sheepish. "I'm sorry sir, I just like him, is all." Again, she looks so nervous at his approval.

Camden just gives a solemn nod. "It's fine. I just didn't want to be wasting the boy's time." His eyes flick up to my face again, and linger there. My eyes lock with his, and I realize I can't break away, even though I'd like to try. It's different than being held by the Peacock King's gaze. It's more like being held by my Dad's.

I realize that thought is only making me look nervous, while being inspected by an Armed, at that. Camden blinks, seems to make some sort of recognition, then shakes it off. He proffers his hand. "My apologies. I've been a bit rude, and I've yet to even give my name to you formally." I shake his hand. He has a firm grip. I try to match it, but something tells me this is the handshake he gives to the ladies. "My line is Briarseal. I give you leave to call me by my given name, Camden." His eyes flick up to mine. He still holds my hand. I realize it's my turn to reply.

I'm unfamiliar with these customs. Before now, I always met Armed through my family ties, so the introductions and rituals were completely different. I've witnessed them in the sense that we're engaging in now, but not particpated directly. And all that is just to put off facing this particularly uncomfortable reality: I have to give my name to a man of the Law, and the name I'm currently using in service to the Peacock King is a lie.

I try to put on as much confidence and soak myself in as much calm as I can. Acting is difficult, though, when it comes to someone who has no trouble sniffing out the Truth in me. "I am called Lotus." It's the Truth, still. And I see no trouble pass over the Armed's face. Relief passes over me.

...Still, he doesn't release my hand.

"I see." He nods, propping up his glasses on his nose with his other hand. "Tell me...Lotus. Is that also the name your Father calls you?" His eyes are on me again. I couldn't escape them before they hooked me.

"...No." The Truth is always the best choice with him. For one, it makes him release my hand, though I've no idea why. He takes a step back, as do I. We regard each other. Rachella watches. I have the barest sense that she's tensing, possibly staying fixed on a weapon she has concealed.

"...I must apologize." Camden dusts off his gloves as he speaks. "I don't remember what your Father introduced you as, when we first met. It was years ago, and you were young. I almost didn't realize who you were." He sees me wilt as he goes on.

I forgot. I forgot that Father had introduced Camden to all of us when I was younger. I only remembered seeing him around, on the business of the Law. If I had realized, I'd have tried to hide my face better with my makeup. What I have on is enough to not make the King think of my resemblance to my Father, but for someone who'd already met me...

The barest hint of a smile lights on his face. "Oh. Oh yes. Lyric. I remember now, because one of your brothers is named Lute. In fact, I believe your Father introduced you two as a matched pair, like Gerald and Gerude." The smile tugs stronger at the corner of his mouth.

I sigh.

He gestures for me to sit beside the fire that he's about to start. "My, boy. You sure are in a lot of trouble."  He only chuckles at the despair that spreads across my face at that proclamation.

I dust off the ground a bit, then settle, looking back at Camden.  He's reaching into one of the pouches hanging from his belt, likely for flint and steel.  Unless he means to teach Rachella to make fire by rubbing two sticks together or something rustic like that.  I feel a whump on the ground next to me, then look over to see that the pack-bearer, or student, or whatever, has decided to take up a seat next to me.  She smiles at me, eyes wide and bright.  I feel her gauntleted hand thump a few times between my shoulders.  "Cheer up," she says.  "If it were the end of the world, we'd still have the best view.  That's what the King always tells me."

I see Camden go still, then look up at Rachella with an expression I've not seen on his face yet.  It glues the girl in place.  She pales.  His eyes narrow.  She bows her head.

"I beg pardon, Sire.  My tongue has run out before my head."  She sounds as solemn as a grave.

His eyes only narrow farther. "Pray next time you make a slip like that, Rachella, that it once again isn't around anyone who is any danger to you." She and I both wince at that, though obviously for different reasons.

I pull up my knees and wrap my arms around them. I feel cold, even though the air is warm tonight. King, huh? Not the Peacock King, of course. I feel them both looking at me, the two pairs of eyes so intent that it almost warms me up. Time to state the obvious, I guess. I know what it is that Rachella managed to leak. "I guess you mean the Poet King. It sounds like something he would say. My Father always said he was more kind in tough situations than anyone else had a right to be." I sigh. I don't understand how much trouble I'm in, by now. I understand that I'm in a lot of it, yes. I just...it's all mixing together now. There's no point in even keeping track by now, is there? Everything's a bigger mess by the moment. By the time another hour passes, the world will have come crashing down on my shoulders. I lean my head down against my knees. It is the end of the world, and the view is awful. I wish I had someone like the Poet King to comfort me. The closest I have to someone like that is Ebrellen-i, and he doesn't comfort me. He just makes me nervous that he'll try to do more than comfort.

I feel a hand on my shoulder just as I realize I'm crying. I don't look up. I know it's Rachella's anyways. I just close my eyes and try to take it as something to calm me. I'm so tired. I wish I were home, but at the same time I'm afraid to. I'm so afraid of everything.

The air feels warm, and I hear crackling from the newborn fire.  I feel another whump on the ground at my other side. Did Camden sit down? It certainly feels like someone very tall is next to me. It's quiet for a few more moments. Then, Camden's clear voice cuts through the void. "Your Father has asked that any Armed or Poet notify him if we find any hint of your whereabouts. I have to send in notice to him when I make my next report. It should be a week until that happens." He's quiet for a few more moments, letting that sink in. "It gives you time to run, if you want. If I were you, I wouldn't. Don't make it worse for your Father and yourself. We can escort you home, if you like." He's as kind as Rachella is, just more adult and more grounded. My panic almost ebbs.

Go home with him? End everything, as if it's so easy? I really wish I could. I try to say something, open my mouth, and something catches in my throat before I can speak. I choke on the word, whatever it was going to be, and then the tears come back. I sob into my knees, fall apart right there. Just go home? Everything could be simple? Everything's waiting to come down around my ears - that was the signal for it all to drop.

Neither says anything. Rachella's hand rubs at my back. I wish I could call it a comfort. But nothing's a comfort now. It's not their fault. They couldn't know. I hear Camden sigh, a sound from someone who is trying to be polite and deal with other people's children. I know he's doing the best he can, really. He's tried to be nice.

"If it helps, I'll tell him myself where you were and why, if you tell me why you came to this place, Lyric." He sounds so open. He really does want to help me. He really cares. "It can't be that bad, can it? You ran out of places to run. You didn't understand what you were getting into. You're not legally bound to the Peacock King, you know. As a citizen of your Kingdom, we can easily get you out of any entanglements. Even any sorceries, if things have progressed that far."

That's the last straw. I curl up as tight as I can, trying to block out his voice, Rachella's touch, everything. Block out the world. Just for a moment. Then I let out a heave that's half exhale, half sob, and uncurl. I wipe my face and look up at Camden for just a moment. Then I reach into the sash of my robe and pull out the box.

"I...I'm sorry, I didn't know how to tell you, and I'm so afraid by now..." I can feel Camden's confused scrutiny as I open the box. My cigarettes. "I don't know what to do anymore. I...please don't do something rash. Please let me explain first." I find the bullet. I hold it up. Rachella gasps. Camden jerks, some startled noise barking out of his throat. "I can feel my brother through this. Gerald. He left his guns to me when he got captured here. The Peacock King is threatening to cause a war if he doesn't...there's a man who has him now...the animism's still in the cell...the King suspects I'm a spy and I don't...I don't...I just don't know what to do!" I hurl myself into Camden's arms. He's silent. Looking back, I'm sure I could have chosen something less awkward to do to him at that moment. It's not important, now. What's important is that once that's out, I start to explain what's happened so far that I know. I even pull out my journal and show what I've written today.

After that...after that, it got even more awkward. I've never been ordered to write. I've never been watched as I do so. Rachella would look over my shoulder, goad me on when I got stuck in parts, when I didn't want to go any further. I recounted Gerald's ordeal as far as I could feel it out. I pressed on, no matter how much Cade scared me. I wrote it all out, every bit that I could, and then just pressed the journal into Rachella's hands, paying no heed to whatever of myself I'd exposed in my writings. I didn't care what secrets I shouldn't have given away. My brother was far more important than my dignity.

Camden stared down at the paper, frowning at certain parts, looking thoughtful at others. He looked alarmed at one or two parts, then startled. He called me over to the part he was reading, pointed to a passage. "This. Lyric. Are you sure you heard him say this? It was that name?"

I look down at what I had written, scanning the paragraph for context. "...Yes. Gerald asked where Elric was. I remember it as if I was still there." I see Rachella's head snap up at the name. "...Who is Elric?"

Camden puts his hand up for quiet, waves me away again. He keeps scanning the journal. "...Thank you. I'll ask the rest of my questions later. You've done a good job," he mutters absently. I only look back at him with confusion, and then Rachella taps my shoulder.

"Camden is Elric's brother," she whispers into my ear. My heart sinks a little. I turn towards her.

"Do you know anything about that Cade guy? What's his story?" I whisper back to her.

She clenches her jaw, her brow furrowing. "He's...notorious, Lyric. What you wrote that I saw over your shoulder...it's very typical of him. If he's keeping Gerald at the Palace until the Peacock King returns...that would be to everyone's advantage. He's taken our people before and we've seen no signs of them again." Her face is very, very troubled, like there's a dark cloud over it.

"...Your people?" The sick feeling in my stomach starts to pulse and ache in worse and worse ways.

"...Poets and Armed, Lyric. He kidnaps them. Other people too. But he hunts...us." She looks to the side. "I might as well get it out: I'm training to bear Arms. I've been a Poet for years. Camden's Poet too, but of course he's famed for his high position as an Armed."  She sees me nod. I understand. I had some of it figured out already, in fact.

Camden finishes with my journal then, and looks up at me. "Lyric." He gestures for me to come sit by him. I settle next to him. He has the journal open on the ground. It's near the beginning of our trip. "I'm going to assume you have the events before the journey written down as well. It certainly reads as if you do." He leans back, looks up at the sky. It's faded to black now, stars dotting the canvas from horizon to horizon. "You're keeping them in a safe place?" The lilt of his voice at the end of that sentence suggests that if I'm not, I'm about to get a lecture and a slap on the wrist, no matter whether or not I'm one of his apprentices. I nod promptly. He relaxes, his shoulders lowering just a sliver. "See to it that you keep doing so. Because you're going to keep writing." He looks to my face to see my reaction.

It's just a blink. I hadn't really thought about it. There wasn't really a question for me, just like apparently there's none for Camden. Of course I'll keep writing. Why would I stop now? I tilt my head at him. He smiles.

"Good. Now, I know you must be keeping your brother's Arms in a safe place now, or else I'd see a finger or two missing from you. They'd enforce that themselves. There's really only one safety precaution that calls for my time now." He points down at a later passage, that took place in the wagon.

I blush, and say nothing in reply.

He nods. "Don't get near him. He is smarter than you, and he will find you out, Jhe Lotus." He doesn't bat an eye at using my psuedonym, even though he sees me wince at the point made from it. "Don't...dissemble about it. It is a blessing that you have gotten as close to him as you have." His head moves just barely, and he smiles. "Jenny, how many spies have been planted successfully under the Jherent o'Monarch's wings?" He looks to the side, in the brush. I follow his gaze, as does Rachella, who appears somewhat embarassed that she's been caught off her guard, even by an ally.

The archer grins, stepping through the tall grass until she drops to her knees beside Camden in a careless flop. She's still crunching a bite from an apple that's in her hand. "Way back, I remember we got a kid in there to tell us a few things, but I think it was just a visiting diplomat's munchkin. Managed to sneak into a room without permission, thought he was raiding a pantry. So other than a mishap with a child barely out of toddling years, we've had no inside men remain inside men. There have been a few short duties done, alike to Gerald's mission, where the spy has been a nearly invisible observer. A few of those have been successful." She shrugs, the heavy mantle on her shoulders shifting oddly with the motion. She adjusts it, then decides to start unbuckling it and remove it entirely.

Camden observes her with just a hint of dryness. "But as for agents posing as members of his own Court, there have been no successes?" He raises an eyebrow. She grins a little, then just gives a nod and a flip of her hair. He shakes his head and sighs. "How long have you been sitting in the brush, listening to all of this? Enough to know everything that's happening, I'm sure." He sounds weary, but completely unsurprised to have been spied on by his...is she supposed to be his student? I don't think she really is. I think that I'm not the only actor in this group.

She only grins longer, then turns her attention to her boots, which she begins unlacing. They go all the way up to her thighs, so it looks like something that could be quite an ordeal. She sighs between her teeth, the exhalation becoming a low whistle. "Maybe Gerald should stick to other missions, and I should have been the one to go in for a full-silence covert operation. He's loyal and has a good work effort, but always did fumble a bit when it came to the subtleties of the game." Her tone grows sad near the end of the sentence. Myself, I feel a pang, and look away. Rachella lays a hand on my shoulder.

"...Yes. There is that to attend to." Camden looks over at me. "Lyric, I'm afraid I won't be able to notify your Father of your whereabouts. We can't leave this area with the situation as it is. We cannot leave Gerald where he is now, nor allow him to be taken elsewhere. You are going to have to continue working for the Jherent o'Monarch as our spy. It's not something that I am comfortable planning, but to do otherwise would endanger too many. And if an incident arises...none will be left to give aid to your friend animism." He peers into the night, eyes focusing on something distant, something not there at all, really. His fingers pluck at a twig lying on the ground as he ponders. "...We're playing chess, now. This is no gun-flashing raid, no extermination sweep. You're going to have to follow instructions. You're going to have to act on intuition when no instructions arrive. In other words, Lyric, you must continue acting as you have been up until now. I'm doing everything short of drafting you." He closes his eyes then, looking a little sickened. I look worse, I'm sure.

No, he couldn't just ride me back home and escort me back to my old, responsibility-free life. That life is long gone now. I don't think I'll ever have it back.

I miss it, all the same.

* * *

Rachella is the one that guides me away and helps me settle down. "Would you like to sleep outside of the tent? It gets all stuffy in there, you know. I love sleeping under the stars, myself. Have you ever done that?" She catches my hand. I look at her. Her eyes are lit up at the prospect. She's so excited. So bright.

I can't help but be caught up by something like that.

We settle down in sleeping bags, staring up at the sky. My eyes trace over the stars, not bothering to track the constellations that I recognize, not bothering to navigate. I need something to get lost in now. Rachella knew that.

She's looking over at me, meanwhile. "...Lyric? How long have you been on the road, alone?"

I blink and keep watching the stars overhead. From this position, with this view, and while talking to this person, the question doesn't put me on the defensive like it usually would. I think over it. "I was sixteen when I left. I'm twenty now. So...it's been almost five years by this point." I frown a little, considering the silver and white pinpoints above me. "I don't feel that much older. I don't think about the time that much, to be honest." I see her nod out of the corner of my eye.

"It feels like that for me, and most of the others I've talked with. Time seems to move slower than it passes. I wonder why that is." She lets out a long sigh, then holds a hand up, a long blade of grass pinched between two fingers. "I miss the days in the Academy, sometimes. I felt so young then. I still feel young now...but now it doesn't feel so genuine. It feels like I should be old, you know?" I nod in reply.

The silence stretches on for awhile, comfortable and warm, like a padding for us both. When she breaks it, it's not so much an abrupt thing as just a natural end. "How long have you been writing?"

I laugh softly. "Several days?" I feel her surprise. "I've written before, of course, when I had to. For the little schooling that I got. I'd keep journals every now and then. Nothing important. I think this trip's diary has been the first thing of any substance that I've ever written and then showed to anyone else. It felt strange for him to read it. Mister Camden." I sigh. "I'm just doing what I can while Gerald can't. I'm sure he'll do better, when he's out." She's silent for awhile after that. I wonder if something's wrong, and start to turn towards her. Before my gaze turns entirely from the stars, she speaks.

"I think...maybe what you do will be more than enough, Lyric. What's been written already, and what you'll write, to come. Maybe that will be enough. Did you..." She turns towards me. I look at her, finally. "Did you ever think about that?"

"Think about what?"

She opens her mouth, then hesitates. She's thinking about something very hard. I'm just not sure what. "Gerald...when did he become a Poet?" Her face gets a tinge of concern when I sigh so heavily.

"That was right before I left. I...I forget, really. If I meant to leave already, and then high-tailed it when he left for the Academy, or if that was the final straw. I don't remember the final straw, anymore. I just remember I had to clear out of there or I'd never be able to stand myself." I see her face, see her reaction to that, and then think I should look back up at the stars again. They're known for their beauty. They're not known for the kind of compassion that makes my stomach go numb when I start to recieve it. "I felt better when I was gone."

I feel her hand on my shoulder. It's that little nudge that makes me realize that the stars are blurring in my sight, and the tears are probably showing. "Why?" She could be asking why I left, or why I felt better. Really, though, they both come down to the same thing.

"It just felt like there wasn't any room for me there anymore, and if I wanted space, I'd have to leave. I could say that he was too good, that I couldn't reach that bar he'd raised, he and my other siblings. And I think it's true. But it...just, everyone, the way they were...I didn't even have enough room to breathe." I take a deep breath and sigh. "Everything was so clear right before I left. I had to get out. Even if Gerald was leaving anyways, because of where he was going, he'd be even more there, you know? Once I left it was all alright. I was almost too busy trying to keep my neck safe, and keep my head afloat, to really think too much about it at the time...but at least I could breathe out there. At least I was on my own. It meant a lot, and I couldn't tell you how. It just did." When there's no reply, I start to worry. Maybe I've let too mch spill out. Maybe what I'd never told anyone should have remained that way. Then I feel her stir, just a little. Hear her shift in her sleeping bag.

"...I know how you feel."

...Maybe I've been waiting a little too long to hear that said.

There's nothing said after that, but nothing really needed to be. We just watched the stars together. Sometime during that, we fell asleep, and there was peace.

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