Far enough out among the brittle bush and bursage that our voices won’t travel back to camp, Nhardah speaks. “I had no idea Nihae’s memory was fading so quickly. How long has this been happening?”
Savi ducks his head and threads his fingers together behind his neck. I answer. “I think we really started to notice it when the bandits captured us. Before then, before we…before the royal Yrin’s dungeon, I noticed her memory wasn’t as strong as it used to be, but nothing like this.”
Nhardah sighs long and deep. “I had hoped that what I saw before we parted was just a reaction to shock. This is worse than I feared. I am so sorry for bringing this grief to your family.”
Savi’s voice is ragged when he speaks. “I don’t understand. How is this happening to her? Hoenna called it the Wasting Curse, and said something about ghouls, but that’s not…”
“I have seen this happen only a dozen times in all my years. For some poor souls whose lives are full of heartbreak, eventually one great loss seems to snap their strength. Her grief for Elesekk is killing her.”
“Is there nothing we can do?” I ask in a strangled voice. “Can’t we help her?”
The gentle hissing of skull insects audible before Nhardah answers sinks my heart. “Pray that Aia will complete His promise and redeem creation. I know no other solution.”
“That isn’t enough,” Saviayr snaps, startling me. “Maybe you can be detached while we mortals wither and die, but this is my mom.”
Nhardah steps closer to Savi, shoulders back, eyes hard. “Do you think I am detached in all this? I have seen more loved ones die than you will know in your short life. You think I should pity your loss, for soon you will lose mother as well as father, but your loss is not permanent. Soon you will join them in merciful death, while I and my dear ones are forever separated.”
“You don’t get to make this about you.” Savi pokes his finger into Nhardah’s chest. The Firstborn’s eyes flash, but he does not move. “Not when you’re the reason my dad died and my mom’s fading. Why couldn’t you get there earlier with the swords? You’re immortal, you knew from the kaites what was coming—why were you late? How do you dare to call death mercy, when you’re blessed with immortality?”
I tense. If they break into a fight, will I be able to calm them?
“Do you honestly think immortality is a blessing?” Nhardah’s voice booms.
“Of course it is,” Savi says.
“In Elcedon, maybe. There—I don’t have words to describe how perfect it was, not since the Rending weakened language.” Savi scowls, but Nhardah rants without paying him attention. “In a world that never knew Elcedon, in a world with such evils and struggles as we face, yes! Death is a rest and release from suffering. But then, it would also just be a way of the world. Why is death so hard for you to accept? Because this world has known Elcedon. I remember that perfection. I think even you, born mortal, remember it in some deep part of you, and so we all know that death is not the best it could be. But it is a mercy. Those who die have respite I shall never know.”
Savi’s jaw twitches. He’s still tense, but I’m no longer afraid he’ll hit Nhardah. Heart aching and heavy from Nhardah’s words, I brush my fingers against Savi’s hand. He twitches away, then glances over his shoulder, sees me, and opens his hand. With my hand firmly in his, Savi murmurs, “But why were you so late? Why couldn’t you save my dad?”
Nhardah’s stern, proud posture crumbles. His chin dips down to his chest. He shudders. “I am sorry. I—I was too slow.”
The skull insects’ hissing is too quiet yet deafening. They’re too small to see in the light of the moons and indree, but the capital looms to the north, a black hulk crested with the gleaming palace and temple. We have such a great obstacle before us. I want to believe our task is impossible. But Aia made fire from nothing, turned the rivers dead, and sent insects and rodents to torment the Izyphorns, so I have to believe He will hold true to His word.
Still, the heaviness of loss thickens the air around us. We can’t go back to camp like this. Instinctively, I bite my lip, then wince at the discomfort of the raw skin. Instead, I take a deep breath and slowly let it out. “Where do we go from here?” I ask the men.
They stare at each other long enough that I’m despairing of them answering. I’m trying to think of what to say next when Nhardah says softly, “I’m sorry. I cannot undo my failure or make Elesekk’s death right, but I grieve deeply for his loss and my role in it.”
Savi’s hand shakes. “I don’t know if I can forgive you yet.”
Nhardah nods. “I have no right to your forgiveness, nor is my remorse dependent upon it. But though I don’t ask for you to forgive me for yourself, please try to do it for yourself. Bitterness festers and injures the one who cannot forgive.”
Savi swallows and turns his head away. “I will try.”
Nhardah’s face softens. He lays a hand on Savi’s shoulder. “Thank you.” Taking a deep breath, Nhardah drops his hand. “Now, it is late, and tomorrow the Champions must reappear before the Izyphorns. Shall we return to camp?”
We do, in silence that is more amicable than when we left. Nhardah heads toward the roosting axex, while Savi and I stretch out on the ground near the others.
Hoenna, leaning against the mesa’s side, looks over at us. “Is everything okay?” he whispers. “I heard raised voices.”
Savi sighs and pulls down the skin of his face. “Just…working through some things.”
I nod at Hoenna. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
He looks between us. “If you say so. I’m here if you need to talk to someone less involved in whatever is going on.”
“Thanks, Hoenna,” Savi says.
We lay down then.
I awaken later in the night with a racing heart and vague memories of what could have been a dream or a shout. Everything around the camp is still, even the axex. Propping myself on my elbows, I look around.
Jshai Pot, the larger moon, has set, and the capital throws us into the shadow of Jshai Peth, the smaller moon. I almost don’t see Savi sitting up and staring out at the open desert.
He looks over when I say his name. “Rai? Why are you awake?”
I sit fully up. “Something woke me. Why are you?”
I scoot closer and rest my head on his shoulder. “Are you still upset about our conversation with Nhardah?”
He shrugs. “Yes. And no. My head won’t be quiet.”
“What’re you thinking about right now?”
“That I hope I didn’t wake you. And I’m a mess inside.”
I wrap an arm around his waist and tug him closer. “Savi, you’re hurting. That’s okay.”
“But I just…I can’t mourn Dad. I can’t…”
“Why do you think that is?”
After thinking, he says, “When I thought you died, it ruined me. I gave up. If the royal Yrin hadn’t come along and wanted my services, I don’t know what would have happened. And then, now it turns out that none of it mattered. You weren’t dead. And Nhardah’s saying I’ll see Dad again, that death is a mercy, so mourning is pointless.”
I squeeze his side. “I don’t think that’s what he meant. He was trying to soften the blow of death, to give you some hope. That doesn’t mean you aren’t right to mourn.”
“But…I don’t know if I can go through that again. I can’t do it if it’ll be pointless in the end.”
“It’s not pointless if it brings you peace,” I say.
“But it won’t help the mission. If I’m going to give into grief, I’m just going to be a burden to you. And now I’m making you lose sleep. What’s my purpose here if I’m just making your life more difficult?”
“Hey,” I say, loud and sharp. The sleepers behind me shift. I lower my voice and continue. “You are so important. I couldn’t do this without you. You keep me grounded and make me think about the practical side. In all my years planning to stand up to the sultan and free Maraiah, do you know I never gave a practical thought to how I would do that? You’re teaching me about diplomacy, and your support is so important. I couldn’t be this confident without you.” I pause. “I need you, Savi.”
He shivers. “Do you—you mean, you really do?”
“I really do.” I must tell him this more often. “I didn’t realize you didn’t know that.”
“I need you, too, Rai.”
A smile stretches my lips. Those words fill me with lightness. Yes, I should definitely tell Savi this more often. I kiss his shoulder.
“You’re right, you know,” he says then. “You really are terrible at planning. Now that you’ve given me permission, we’re going to have to fix that.”
This isn’t him letting himself mourn, but we’ve talked about a lot today, and it’s late. I let him get away with the distraction. “Good.”
“I mean, it seems like Aia’s got a plan for what we’re doing here, and it’s working out okay. Aside from the imprisonment. But what do we do if and when Izyphor releases us? How do we deal with that?”
The very question sparks a yawn so wide it’s painful. “Yeah, yeah, that’s important,” I agree. “But can we talk about it in the morning?”
There’s a pressure on the top of my head, Savi kissing my hair. “Yeah.” he agrees. “We can wait till then.”
There you have it :) This was quite an emotional chapter to write; how did you react to reading it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!