111

“How long have they stood there now?” Thayne asked as she held out a mug of steaming tea to Thae’a who sat on a stool beside Bayls facing where Shiran City used to be. It had been three weeks since the earth had swallowed Shiran City, her Uncle’s corpse, Rhyshladlyn, and Anislanzir. Never mind the millions of Shiranites who hadn’t made it out before the City had sunk beneath the sands.

Three long weeks filled with sleepless nights, terribly hopeful and bright mornings, and dreary, dejected afternoons that led back into sleepless nights. They had been three of the longest weeks of her life.

“At least a week,” Bayls answered, taking a sip from her own mug of coffee, hazel eyes filled with a sadness that was so much more than grief, so much more than loss.

“No, it’s been just over a week and a half now,” Thae’a corrected. “They sleep and relieve themselves in shifts. Only eat when Bay or I bring them food and refuse to leave until they consume all of it. They took up the watch ever since the event.”

Thayne hummed softly, sucking her bottom lip in between her teeth, staring at the emptiness that was interrupted by seven tall, black obelisks that stretched up from the sands, reaching for the skies they would never touch. They had sprouted up from the ground nearly two weeks ago, the ground rumbling softly like the purring of a cat as they appeared, shaking sand off themselves as they rose. It was something those in the camp and around the Worlds had come to refer to as “the event,” with what happened to the City being called “the disaster of Shiran City.”

Now those silent sentinels, a homage to a past that lay lost, literally, to the sands of Shiraniqi Desert, acted as a large, predominantly useless sundial. It would have been comical if she hadn’t spent one day too many watching the shadows lengthen and shorten as the sun rose and set. If she wasn’t spending yet another sunrise waiting for her Qishir to rise from the sands carrying her uncle as he walked away from the second worst disaster to hit the Worlds in her lifetime as though he had simply gone on a nice long walk. If it wasn’t so disconcerting to have watched one of the Sanctuary Cities sink into the earth, then watch as its Watchtowers rose weeks later, it would almost seem like a horror story made up to frighten fledglings into behaving. If it wasn’t so hope-inducing when she doubted highly that there was any reason left to hope, it would have all seemed like a bad dream.

But it was real, it wasn’t a dream, and as much as she wished she could find comedy in how the tether points of Shiran City now served no more purpose than to mark the passage of time as one day bled into the next, she couldn’t. Because when those obelisks had arisen? When the other six had joined the first and only one that had still been visible when Shiran had fallen? It had sparked off a whole new type of tension in the camp, one she had not been remotely repaired to handle.

Nhulynolyn, Shadiranamen, Xheshmaryú, and Relyt had argued with the rest of them about mounting a search of the area, about clearing the sand away and searching for the City that had to still be buried beneath the dunes. They had argued that the Watchtowers wouldn’t have blossomed like that if Rhyshladlyn wasn’t still alive, because he had tethered to the Heart Watchtower before the disaster, after all. But Thayne had refused, said they didn’t know what they’d encounter if they approached, if they disturbed anything. Told them that the Greywalker race had set traps into the magicks that had been woven into each brick and stone laid for their Cities; that if one were to fall, only the Qishir tethered to that fallen City or one of the Builders, could disturb its resting place unscathed.

Never mind that they didn’t have the manpower for such a monumental task even if it had been safe to attempt. The army had largely dispersed, leaving behind only fifty thousand of the two hundred thousand that had stayed when she had denounced Lulphé as her Qishir. Those that had left had done so to escort survivors to nearby Ikqir and Ryphqi City and Hagirqi Metropolis to get medical aid, shelter, and gather statements to send to the Eighth Qishir. Had left to see if the war between the Sinners and the Ancients against Rhyshladlyn was over now that his Companion was confirmed dead and he was missing and presumed the same. Had sent an envoy with a missive to the Eighth Palace signed by her to reach out to Lulphé, to see what would become of the Grey Court; to determine if they would be allowed to find land and lay roots or if they were to remain in limbo until an official announcement of Rhyshladlyn, Azriel, and Anislanzir’s deaths were made to the Seven Worlds.

Mother had told her that she was waiting until after the Festival of the Flesh had passed, as such a decision shouldn’t be made so swiftly, that such a holy day shouldn’t be sullied with mourning any more than it already would be. Because not only was there the fate of the Grey Court to discuss but also that of the Sinner Demons. For the race that had ruled from Shiran City was bereft of a Lord King and a male heir to take over the throne in his absence; and while Thayne had said that Alaïs was more than capable both in mindset and power to take the throne, hold it, rule fairly, and repair the damage dealt to and by her race, Lulphé had been less than convinced. It had ended with Thayne hanging up on the female, again, just to keep from snarling some very unsavory insults at her in Anglë’lylel.

Speaking of Mother…

“I heard from Lulphé,” she spoke hesitantly, knowing that the subject of the Eighth Qishir was a testy one among the Court and she really couldn’t blame her friends, her family. After all, her mother was at least partially responsible for Azriel’s loss and Rhyshladlyn’s resulting disappearance, as well as the disaster that was Shiran City. But as much as she wanted to remain in isolated limbo as much as the rest of them did, they couldn’t afford to do that. And with Relyt unOathed, she was the highest ranking member of the Court, so it fell to her to make contact with other Courts, specifically the highest in the Worlds. Even if she didn’t want to.

Bayls and Thae’a turned to stare at her with identical looks of exhausted acceptance and one eyebrow raised. It was almost frightening how much alike the two had become in the last few weeks. In the same breath it was also heartwarming. Because Thayne had the feeling that Bayls was handling the loss of Azriel and the disappearance of Rhyshladlyn nearly as badly as Relyt and Nhulynolyn, so for the female to have someone to lean on? Well, it made her worry for the Sinner ease slightly.

“Tomorrow is the Festival of the Flesh,” she sighed softly, scratching at one of her eyebrows absently, hoping that the ache that throbbed softly behind it wasn’t the beginning of a headache. “As the highest ranking member of the Grey Court, as well as due to my blood ties to her, Lulphé has requested my presence at the festivities, ritual, and feast.”

Bayls snorted, the sound so far from ladylike that it very nearly drew a giggle from her own throat.

“You’re expected to celebrate the nameday of your Qishir who may or may not be dead with the very un-female who is to blame for the events that lead up to this entire shit storm?” Bayls’ voice was harsh and in that harshness she heard Rhyshladlyn’s unwavering refusal to be pushed around, refusal to be walked over and used. Did I develop some of his quirks and personality, too? “I thought she was stupid before but that takes it to a whole new level. Not to mention it’s fucking rude.”

Thayne didn’t fault the Sinner for her animosity. She agreed with her assessment, after all. Though while Thayne didn’t care that she spoke that way to a Qishir, others wouldn’t be. But for the moment, she didn’t stay anything about it. Bayls was still far enough away from Thayne’s personal line that she didn’t feel the need to reprimand the other female. Though the gods only knew how long that would last. She knew from personal experience that despite her small size, Bayls was a force to be reckoned with. So there’s was no telling when, or if, the Sinner would suddenly rocket towards that line and make every attempt to destroy it.

“Are you planning to attend?” Thae’a asked, looking forward again as she sipped her tea with a nonchalance that didn’t remotely fool her. While the Dreamweaver held as much animosity as Bayls did, Thae’a understood that Thayne had to play the political game, understood that where some things were concerned, she didn’t have a choice. After all, they had discussed it during the wee hours of the night when neither of them could sleep for the guilt that kept them awake, for the nightmares that haunted them.

In the wake of the disaster of Shiran City and the appearance of the Watchtowers that followed, Thae’a had had to be watched far more closely than Rhyshladlyn’s Steward and Others to everyone’s surprise but Thayne’s. She knew that survivor’s guilt was a heady thing and had expected Thae’a’s to be horrible. And she had been right, much as she had prayed she wouldn’t have been.

Thae’a’s survivor’s guilt had been palpable; made all the stronger because she had run. She hadn’t stayed and tried to save Azriel, to get through to Rhyshladlyn. Had told them that the reason she’d run was that the Qishir had told her to, had practically thrown her down the hallway after he’d utterly destroyed her Weaving, something no Dhaoine that wasn’t a Dreamweaver should have been able to do. Had told them that the Weaving had reset once back to a certain point, something it shouldn’t have done unless an event within it happened in a way that it wasn’t supposed to. That only if a Fated event had been affected by the Weaving would it reset on its own without the Dreamweaver doing anything. And she had struggled the most in the aftermath with handling the what ifs, so much so that it had taken Nhulynolyn sitting down with her and telling her that he didn’t blame her for what happened, absolved her of any wrongdoing for running, before she was even remotely able to take a breath.

And that had only been the start.

Those first few days had been brutal in a way Thayne had never expected. Though looking back on it, she really should have. Because what did she actually expect when they had confirmation from Thae’a that their Qishir’s Oathed Companion had perished only to watch as the City they’d been in inexplicably fell beneath the desert sands? What did she expect but for anyone to feel a crushing hope that if Rhyshladlyn was dead, then his Others would be gone, too, but they weren’t. And the why‘s and how‘s were fit to destroy them more successfully than the grief.

The camp was still mostly standing, though they had consolidated a lot of the tents to make the spread of the main hub smaller. The old hospital tent was also where they held their supplies now, the mess tent was half Temple, half where they took meals. They had moved her tent closer to the other two, and connected all the personal tents together via covered walkways so that they made a circle around the mess, Temple, hospital and supply tents.

None of them had mentioned the cabin that had more than enough rooms and space for them that sat empty and gathering dust not too far away. Because none of them wanted to enter the home their Qishir had built without him. So they had remained in the tents, by mutual unspoken agreement. And so what was once a war camp now sported a haphazard refugee village addition, one that felt woefully exposed without the entirety of the army surrounding them, with the fifty thousand that had stayed having shifted their tents further away from the Court, giving them their privacy to grieve and recover.

But that privacy hadn’t really done much besides make it more likely that the struggles of one was missed by them all.

She would never forget the day she had scented blood that smelled like ice and winter air spiced with the tang of copper and followed it into Rely’ts tent to find him laying on his cot, arms sliced to ribbons, eyes shiny with tears that had left wet tracks on his face, body wracked with sobs she had been shocked not to have heard before she had found him. She would never forget rushing to his side, asking him what happened as she called out for help and hearing him mutter brokenly, “I was trying to get them off me. My qahllyn’qir… I don’t deserve them. I needed to get them off me.” Would never be able to un-hear the way he’d repeated those words over and over through his tears. Would never be able to forget the way he had shrieked when she’d tried to Heal the wounds, to bandage him up. It had taken Nhulynolyn punching him to knock him out before she had been able to. And once she had and he’d woken up? The Soul Healer had had to be placed on twenty-four hour watch because he couldn’t stop himself from trying to reopen the wounds; couldn’t stop himself from doing worse when he was unable to reopen them.

Looking at where the Grey Soul Healer stood beside Nhulynolyn, back straight, curling black hair cut just short enough that he couldn’t pull it back so it was left to fall into his face and shadow his slate grey eyes, she let out a shaky breath. His arms were still wrapped in white bandages, starting around his palms and reaching up to just above his elbows, proudly displayed, a testament to his near mistake of committing self murder, of nearly giving up on his Qishir. They were no longer bloodstained as often as they had been, no longer needed to be checked so frequently, but he kept the bandages in place as a deterrent and a reminder and it made her chest ache.

Seeing Nhulynolyn with his hair having grown unchecked so that it was now long enough for her to see it was more fiery than his twin’s auburn, fuzzy and soft looking, she rubbed at her sternum trying to ease the ache that built there. He hardly spoke verbally since the disaster and the event, and if he did it was in whispers to Bayls who relayed his words. When he couldn’t even do that, his fellow Otherborn spoke for him. When she had asked Shadiranamen why, just out of morbid curiosity the answer had felt like a slap to the face, “His voice is identical to Rhys’. It reminds everyone around him of what we have lost. So out of respect for our shared pain, he tries not to speak as much as possible.” In hindsight, that should have been obvious. And while the Other had understood that it hadn’t been, Thayne still felt like shit for not realizing it before she’d asked.

Seeing Shadiranamen and Xheshmaryú leaning against each other, holding hands with their fingers linked, she knew that no reason she gave for the answer she was about to give Thae’a would be good enough. That it would do nothing to assuage the blame that had fallen to her by default in the absence of her mother, not that she was truly all that upset about said blame. But it didn’t make speaking any easier.

“Yes, I’m going to attend,” she answered finally and Bayls’ stare grew hard but she paid it no mind. The Sinner needed someone physical she could see to be furious with and if that person was her? So be it. So long as it helped her, Thayne would take all the blame the female had to give. Within reason. “Alaïs said she wanted to go along–” she held up a hand as both Bayls and Thae’a opened their mouths to protest, “–do not worry, Adïm and I both shot that down. He’s still with her now, trying to convince her not to stow away and follow me back regardless.”

It was Thae’a’s turn to snort. “From what stories I heard Relyt, Rhys, and A–” she cut off abruptly and cleared her throat before continuing, “from what stories I’ve heard, she is definitely very headstrong, so it’s not surprising she wants to go with you, even if the idea is a bad one.”

“I gathered as much,” she didn’t comment on how the Dreamweaver had choked up on saying Uncle’s name, “I also stated that I thought it was a bad idea as well because getting her in the same room as Mother can only lead to disaster.”

“I don’t see how,” Bayls muttered, still sounding testy as she took another sip of her coffee, hazel eyes having left Thayne to look at Nhulynolyn who visibly relaxed when her eyes landed on his back as though he could sense her gaze. “If anything, I see it as being a blessing. At least one of the Sinner heirs will be able to get retribution.”

Thayne raised an eyebrow, knowing that she was being set up to bait the other female, to spark off a fight, it was clear as day. Clear enough that even Thae’a shot a disgruntled look at the female. She could walk away now, not rise to it, but part of her didn’t want to. Part of her rankled that Bayls was treating her like horse shit that had gotten into the grooves of her boot and wouldn’t come out no matter how vigorously she scrubbed it. Part of her rankled that even though it was clear that she was allowing the Sinner to take her frustrations out in her general direction, that Bayls was still stepping too far.

But she was nothing if not a good strategist. So while she saw the opportunity to bait the female back, to be petty and vicious with it, she also saw another option. One that was far better.

“Bayls,” when the Sinner looked at her she sighed and let her face fall, let the grief and the worry show instead of the frown that had been there, instead of the indifferent mask of lost patience that she had been wearing for weeks, “you lost a friend and a brother, but remember I also lost an Uncle, a male who basically raised me, and a friend. And while Lulphé may be responsible for the lot of this in some form or another, while I may be her daughter, I am not her.”

Before Bayls could do more than drop her jaw in shock, cheeks heating with embarrassment, before Thae’a could do more than spit out the sip of tea she had just taken, Thayne turned on her heel and walked away. Walked away before she said anything else, before she sank to the level Bayls had. Before she crossed lines even she didn’t think was excusable given the situation they were all in.

Plus she still needed to go over the list of things she would need to pack before she left. Needed to go over everything she would have to give Thyl so make it easier for the Druid to step up as acting General while she was attending the festivities at the Eighth Palace.

But instead of starting that list, she let her mind wander instead as she crossed the distance between the watch post and the camp with long strides.

She didn’t want to attend, didn’t want to leave the camp and the people who had become her family. Not to mention that as a Qishir without an official Court of her own, without her Qishir available to lead their own feasting and ritual, she had no choice but to attend. Even if she wished more than words could describe that she could take up that mantle as the Court’s acting Qishir until Rhyshladlyn returned — if he returned — she couldn’t, she wouldn’t. It wasn’t her place, it wasn’t her Court. It was his, and if he wasn’t there to lead it? Then she would die before she let anyone that wasn’t his Companion or Steward rule it.

Plus she had a sinking feeling that she had go to Zhalharaq, that something extremely important was going to happen and that she had to be there to bear witness to it. So go she would. She’d go and not waste precious time thinking of ways out of it. Pausing just at the line of the camp, she glanced over her shoulder at where all but three of the Grey Court stood watch, waiting for their Qishir and his Companion to return, or at least the Qishir. She looked at those she would stand witness for, looked at those she would give her life to protect without a second thought.

A lump form in her throat and she swallowed convulsively around it, feeling the façade she had worn for far too long begin to crack around the edges. But this time, she didn’t bother to try and regain control of it. Not yet. Didn’t bother to hide her grief, her dwindling hope, her loss.

With a shaking hand she wiped at the tears on her own face and looked away from the sight of her family staring at the Watchtower-peppered emptiness, swirling with a hope she didn’t think would bring them anything but pain.

Blessed 92nd naming day, Rhyshladlyn Nhulynolyn GreySong Ka’ahne. I pray that wherever you are, you are at peace.

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