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Absolution

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The aftermath of the battle is tightly controlled chaos for the first few days. You spend the hours helping everyone set the Spire to rights, tending the wounded, carting supplies in and out, establishing schedules for watch, and kitchen, and cleaning, and everything in between. It’s overwhelming. It’s just what you need.

Because while you’re busy, your primary concerns are easy. All you need to think about is where you must report next and Callum’s hand in yours. You’re not really thinking. At least not about the bad things. The pouch. The fall. Runaan.

The thoughts come anyway. At night, in your dreams, you do not have Callum or a hundred human and elven soldiers clamoring for your attention. You are alone, and vulnerable, and the nightmares assail you without mercy.

Sometimes you are standing by Ethari as Runaan’s flower sinks, watching the man you’ve always known to be steady and strong crumple. His kind face becomes something unrecognizable, twisted with grief and anger. Anger at you.

Sometimes you are on the battlements again. Runaan is in front of you, face hard, the father gone and the assassin come to call. You look him in the eye when his swords pierce your chest. He is full of hate, you of shame, then unimaginable pain. The last thing you see is him dissolving into dust, the echo of Viren’s laughter bidding him farewell. You are never able to help him as well as you killed him.

Sometimes you deal the killing blow yourself. Your butterfly blades meet for him, your own father, precisely the way they couldn’t for a stranger. You watch as the life drains from his eyes, but there is no fear, nor is there love. Elves spare no love for traitors. The scene changes—the forest, the castle, occasionally even home, but the betrayal is a cruel constant.

You wake up from these horrors, breathless with terror and guilt, feeling as though your body is a million miles away. Grief and the loneliness that accompanies it numb you, and every time you wonder if this will be the day you break entirely. Limb to limb, sense to sense, you piece yourself together. It’s exhausting. It’s necessary. You have work to do and people who need you.

So you welcome the crowd, the people, the work. They are all the noise and activity you need to stay anchored to yourself. Only they fade too. Within two weeks most everybody has packed up to go home. Panic seizes your throat when you realize that your sole relief is gone.

Callum stays, but you swear to never burden him with this particular sorrow. You cannot ask him to mourn his father’s murderer. So you get better at lying to him. When he asks why you’ve stopped eating, you claim no appetite. When he asks why you’ve stopped sleeping, you claim that you are too excited. He is smart enough to know that you’re hiding something and sweet enough to let you. The time will come quickly when his concern beats his consideration, but for his silence now, you are grateful.

You let yourself wither out of some perverse fealty to justice until you nearly fall off the Spire. Exhaustion and malnourishment have finally caught up to you, it seems, for even after catching yourself you are woozy rather than alert. The black spots dancing across your vision are a jaunty companion to the alarm bells pealing in your head. In spite of your shame and self-hatred, you decide then that something must be done. You need to stop running. You need to face this head on.

So, you steal away in the night, leaving only a note to explain your absence. It feels dirty and cruel, and you know that Callum will be justifiably angry when he wakes. Still, some part of you knows instinctively that you can’t let him come. This is something you need to do alone.

Alone you get to the Silvergrove much faster than you thought possible. Its lights blink into existence at the command of your key. You make your way home through a faceless crowd, simultaneously terrified and relieved to not have to meet anyone’s eyes. Guilty as you are, you don’t think you could handle facing your clan right now. Traitor as you are, you wish you still had the option.

You push open the forge door in time with the dawn lights. Even the moon has left you, you note distantly, painfully aware of how loud your steps are. Runaan would be aghast. It doesn’t matter, though. He can’t hear you now.

Ethari can’t either, but he does see you eventually. Your reflection catches on a filigreed shield he’s held up to the light. Your face is stretched and sallow, distorted further in the metal, but recognizable enough. You watch the slideshow of emotions play out on his face—confusion, then surprise, and finally genuine happiness. His smile pulls at something in your chest.

You can hardly breathe by the time he grasps your hand and his face finally comes into view. There is still some space in you to feel sorry as his smile drops and a worried frown takes its place.

“What’s wrong, Rayla?” he asks.

You have held it together for so long now, but somehow those three words, from the only parent you have left, unravel you. You come undone in his arms, in the home that will never be home again, sobbing so violently that your whole body shakes with the force of it. You can’t hear the words Ethari whispers into your hair, but you feel the vibrations of them, echoes of love you don’t deserve. You never deserved them. Look at what you did to them.

“I killed him,” you manage, when you finally have breath to speak.

Ethari doesn’t have to ask. He knows because you’re guilty, aren’t you? That must be why he’s drawing away now, bracing his arms against your shoulder. Some long-buried bit of bravery pulls your eyes up to his. You immediately regret it when you see the conflict written plainly across his face.

“Rayla. I loved Runaan more than I have ever loved anyone. I loved him enough to know that he was a flawed man. Stubborn as he was strong.”

You think you might be dying. Your chest feels as though it will explode.

“You made a mistake, yes. I won’t lie to you. But you were the child. He was the adult. By all accounts, you offered him a path to life.” Ethari pauses a moment, eyes dark with impossible sadness. Guilt, too? You duck your head, shame renewed. “That he chose not to take it is not your burden to bear.”

“This is not your fault, Rayla.”

Something releases within you. You are still shaky with grief and sorrow, but for the first time in weeks you take a full breath. You did not come here expecting absolution. But you needed it.

When you look up again, Ethari’s face is gone. You give him a hug he can’t feel and leave, steps quiet. The clamor in your head too has quelled, and you make your way out of the Silvergrove in long-forgotten silence.

You did not ask Callum to come, but you are not surprised to find him waiting at the entrance. His posture is tired and his face strained, but there is no anger. You are absurdly, incongruously amused when he brushes feathers from his shoulders once aware of your approach.

“Are you okay?” he asks you, impossibly kind.

“I will be.”

You walk on.