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Hard Truths

Hard Truths

Post by Julen on

“I’m sorry.”

As soon as the bedroom door shut behind them, the exact same words jumped from both their mouths. For a moment, Julen and Rosemary simply gawked at each other, startled by their simultaneous apologies. Then, they began to laugh. It was one of the few genuinely mirthful moments they’d shared for several days, and they held onto it, letting it erode the walls which had grown up between them.

“Rosemary, I just--” Julen began, when their laughter finally died down. Habit had trained him to initiate their reconciliations. But this time, Rosemary laid a finger across his lips, silencing him.

“No. I shouldn’t always wait for you to apologize first, as if it’s still your job to court me. As if you still need to prove yourself each time. We’re partners in our marriage. I want to do my share of the work.”

Her finger dropped away, and Julen longed to catch her hand, to bring it back to his lips so he could cover her skin with kisses. Instead, he just smiled at her, touched by her confession. “I don’t mind. I’d gladly court you every hour of every day, for the rest of my life.”

“I know. But you shouldn’t have to.” Rosemary drew a deep breath. “I’m sorry that I’ve been lashing out at you. Sometimes, I feel really scared, really helpless...and I hate feeling like that, so I turn it into anger instead. Because anger doesn’t make me feel weak. And then I vent my anger on you. Because I know it’s safe. Because I know you’re too patient and kind to really fight back.”

“Rosemary...” Julen started to protest. But Rosemary shook her head and pushed onward.

“I was talking with Aorle this morning. He really is very wise and kind. He said that I should ask you for your aid. He said that if I decided what I want, and told you, you would do your best to give it to me. So I did a lot of thinking today. And I decided.”

Meeting his wife’s gaze, Julen waited. What if she wanted him to break his vow to Aorle and become a farmer again? What if she wanted him to promise something beyond his control -- to never get hurt, never die? What if she wanted to be allowed the sort of freedom which would constantly put her at risk?

What if she wanted to leave him?

Slowly, Rosemary raised her hands and stretched them out toward Julen. “I want to be your wife again, like I was back in Shim. I want you to need me. Rely on me. And I want us to talk. This silence makes me feel more afraid and helpless than anything else.”

“I’m so sorry.” Julen clasped his wife’s hands in his own, gripping them with a strange mixture of tenderness and desperation, like a child holding butterflies that he neither wants to harm nor release. “I was trying to protect you, to shield you from pain. But Rollick was right. Holding things back has just made you suffer more.”

“Tell me,” Rosemary pleaded. “Whatever it is, I can be strong. I can help you carry its weight.”

Giving his wife a gentle tug, Julen pulled her to him, only releasing her hands when she wrapped her arms around him. She was his angel. The soft sound of her breath was the most reassuring prayer he’d ever heard. And, as Amaranda had shown him, angels didn’t shy away from bleeding for those they loved. So Julen made his confession.

“Snyde didn’t just rough me up a little and take my stuff. When I got there, he had Kaydee chained to the wall -- she’d obviously been badly hurt. I tried to rescue her. But there were too many of them. They got me down on the ground and clubbed me until I dropped my sword.” Again, the memory made Julen’s fingers clench, as if squeezing air could somehow prevent their earlier failure. Shakily, Julen raised his hand to his wife’s hair. Now, instead of grasping at nothing, his fingers closed around its thick softness, and that brought great comfort. He didn’t know how many times he might be forced to relive his hell. But he no longer needed to relive it alone.

“After I dropped my sword, his thugs kept beating me. I...I felt bones snap...I felt things inside me tear apart...until finally I didn’t feel anything at all.”

Rosemary had started to tremble and Julen could tell she was crying. Part of him wanted to whisper soothing reassurances, to tell her to dry her eyes. But she was allowing him his pain. He shouldn’t try to stifle hers.

“The next thing I knew, they’d thrown me in the street. Kaydee too. Snyde left us there as an example of what happens when people cross him. I thought surely someone would help us -- after all, I was there because I’d tried to help them. But everyone acted like they couldn’t even see us. One man even spit on Kaydee. I wanted so badly to punch him in the face. But I couldn’t move. They could have done anything to her, and I wouldn’t have been able to move.”

“Uluki found us just in time. I think...I think I was dying.” Julen shut his eyes, trapping his tears before they could fall. Not tears for what he’d suffered then. But tears for what his words were causing Rosemary to suffer now. Her pain was his pain, and they both felt it acutely. But, by the same token, his healing was her healing. And as Julen finally spoke the truth about what had happened to him, they both felt that too.

When Aorle advised Rosemary to ask for what she wanted, she’d been brave and honest enough to do it. Julen knew that he owed her the same thing. “I guess...I guess I just need you to understand. And I need you to forgive me.”

Rosemary raised her head to look at him, her cheeks glistening and her expression suggesting that she thought he’d gone mad. “Forgive you?”

“What if it had been you?” Julen’s throat felt so tight, he was sure that forcing out any more words would scratch it to shreds. But he forced them out anyway. “Gods, bad enough that it was Kaydee...bad enough that it was anyone. But what if it had been you? What if I let that happen to you? A man who can’t protect his own wife from something like that doesn’t deserve to be married. And if I don’t deserve to be married, then the right thing to do is leave. That’s why you need to forgive me. Because I can’t leave. I just can’t.”

“You foolish man!” Laughing through her tears, Rosemary embraced Julen even more tightly. “Of course I forgive you. For not saving me, or not leaving me, or whatever other crimes you’ve committed. Because you’re my husband. And because I love you.”

“Thank you.” Julen’s voice was raw with emotion. “I love you, too.”

For a long time, they simply clung to each other. Then, Rosemary nodded over toward the bed, a mischievous glint in her hazel eyes. “You know...we haven’t had a chance to properly test that yet. Make sure it works.”

Following her gaze, Julen frowned in puzzlement. “I’m sure it works. And even if it doesn’t, it was the last bed left, so we can’t trade it for another one. Although I suppose someone might be able to fix it...” The words trailed off as he finally caught up with her meaning. “Oh! You mean test it.”

“Yes,” Rosemary agreed, more amused than exasperated. “Test it. Maybe see how it holds up to a little bouncing.”

As he watched his wife walk over to the bed, and begin to shed her dress, Julen remembered another conversation which still awaited him. Except, maybe that one could wait? Kaydee was important. Julen didn’t want to ignore her. But their talk would only bring her pain. And although that couldn’t be put off forever, surely one night wouldn’t hurt? He needed to make sure everything truly was alright between him and Rosemary. Besides, testing beds was important. Someone could get badly injured on a faulty bed.

Yes, Julen decided, when Rosemary’s dress fell to the floor with a soft rustle, testing beds was very important work indeed.
Shim -- where the men are men, and the livestock are scared.

Re: Hard Truths

Post by Julen on

A light knocking prodded Julen awake. Reluctantly, he untangled himself from Rosemary, and fumbled in the darkness for his pants -- which, somehow, had ended up under his pillow. Struggling into them, Julen hopped over to the door. He wasn’t sure who he expected to find on the other side of it. Perhaps Soubrette, come to say goodbye before she slipped off into the night, or perhaps some idiot fairy-hater who thought that whining about Uluki couldn’t wait until morning. However, it wasn’t either of those. It was Kaydee.

Behind Julen, Rosemary stirred in the bed. “Julen? Who is it?”

Julen’s first instinct was to slam the door and bolt it from the inside. But he caught himself mid-swing. Instead, he pushed the door mostly shut, while still leaving enough of a crack to suggest that it would be opening again in a minute. “It’’s Thetta. Apparently there’s been some confusion about the order of watches tonight. I’ll be right back.”

A mumble answered him, indicating that Rosemary had already begun dozing off again. Hastily, before anything further could rouse her, Julen slipped out into the hallway.

A few lanterns had been hung along the compound passages, to aid anyone needing to make nighttime trips. In their faint light, Julen could see that Kaydee wore one of the dresses Mavelle had given Rosemary. Two thin straps were all that stretched across Kaydee’s pale shoulders, while the rest of the purple silk cascaded down along her slender body, accented by twinkling glass beads. One of the other refugees had braided her hair. With it pulled back, the light played across the graceful curve of her cheekbones, and danced in her bright eyes. She looked beautiful. For a moment, Julen couldn’t speak.

Fortunately, Kaydee spoke for him. “You should have seen your face,” she giggled. “Like Krarug just asked you to dance.”

“What were you thinking?” As Julen’s voice returned to him, so did his concern over what had nearly happened. “Knocking on my door dressed like that? Didn’t you know Rosemary was with me?”

Kaydee’s smile didn’t waver. “Sure, I knew. But she doesn’t matter anymore. You have me now.”

Oh gods. Gods! What have I done? “Kaydee, we need to talk.” Julen glanced at the doors which lined both sides of the hallway. This spot was too public, with too much chance for an unwanted interruption. “Let’s go out to the garden.”

His suggestion that they retreat to a more private location actually seemed to encourage Kaydee, and her expression of hope nearly broke Julen’s heart. But he wasn’t going to explain further. Not until there was no chance of being overheard. So, Julen simply started walking. And when Kaydee offered her hand to him, he couldn’t keep himself from taking it.

The garden had been the first isolated place that popped into Julen’s head. Unfortunately, once they stood beside its freshly dug earth, all the memories and feelings from their last visit all came rushing back. Julen tried to think about his conversation with Rollick, to hold onto the resolve he’d felt then. But it kept eluding him. There was something about the darkness of night that made daylight promises seem impossibly far away. Opening his mouth, Julen attempted to push out words, but all that came was a ragged rush of breath.

Misinterpreting his hesitation, Kaydee slid closer. “You don’t need to be shy. I know what men like. And I want to do it all for you. I’ve wanted to do it all for you since the first time we met in the shanty town.” With her free hand, Kaydee reached between Julen’s legs, and gave a gentle squeeze. “I’ll do things to you that Rosemary has never even thought of.”

Her bold move elicited a gasp of surprise and arousal. Julen felt his willpower start to waver. Was it really so wrong? They were both consenting adults. Who would it hurt?

Everyone. It would hurt everyone. It would hurt Rosemary and Kaydee. It would hurt his unborn children by creating a rift between their parents that could never truly be repaired. It would hurt his fellow Lightswords by distracting him when he needed clarity for the upcoming battle. It would hurt Aorle by making him ashamed of his yeoman’s poor judgement. Everyone.

Reaching down through the tornado of emotions spinning around inside of him, Julen seized hold of the one thing he knew for certain. “Kaydee, I care very deeply about you. But I love Rosemary. She is my wife, and until death splits us apart, I’m never going to leave her. Never.”

Kaydee took a step backwards, her expression registering shock. But she quickly recovered herself. Laughing to mask her pain, she tossed her head, and met his gaze with eyes that glistened just a little too much to hide the tears forming in them. “Well, of course. I knew that. I was just kidding earlier. Of course you won’t leave your wife. We’ll be lovers in secret, so she never finds out.”

“No.” Reluctantly, Julen let her hand fall from his. “We won’t be lovers at all.”

“But--? But last night--?”

“Last night happened because I was weak and confused. It shouldn’t have happened at all. It won’t happen again.”

Anger twisted Kaydee’s face, creating crevices where tears collected before flowing onward. “I thought you liked me! I thought you cared. But you’re just like all the rest. You don’t care about me at all!”

Overwhelmed by her pain, Julen reached out for Kaydee. However, she shook off his touch, like a wet dog trying to cast away the water clinging to its fur. “Kaydee. I don’t expect you to understand immediately. I know that right now, all you feel is hurt and rejected. But I’m doing this because I care about you. If I didn’t care, I’d use you for my pleasure, and disregard the damage my actions did to you.”

“I don’t mind...” Kaydee’s anger seemed to have passed, and now she just looked wretched. “Lots of men have hurt me. I’m used to it. Just let me be with you, and I promise, I won’t ever complain.”

Julen shook his head. “You say that now. But in time, I think we’d both come to realize that the price we paid was too high. You deserve so much more than I can give you. You deserve a man who can promise himself to you alone. You deserve a man who can stand up in front of everyone and proudly proclaim: This is my one true love.”

Kaydee wrapped her arms around herself and stared at the ground. Looking at her, Julen searched for something further to say, some magic word which might ease her suffering. One confession remained unspoken. Maybe if he told Kaydee, if he made her understand that some power rested with her, she wouldn’t feel so helpless and defeated. “Kaydee? I’m doing something hard because I care about you. And I...I need you to do something hard if you truly care about me.”

Slowly, Kaydee glanced up, her eyes puffy from crying. Satisfied that he had her attention, Julen pushed onward. “I could love you, Kaydee. I could love you so easily. Please don’t hurt me by making that happen. Don’t make me spend the rest of my days with an ache that can’t ever be healed.”

Another ragged breath escaped Julen as he waited for Kaydee. Waited for her to agree with what he’d said, to promise that she’d never push them beyond the bounds of friendship. But instead, she dropped to her knees in the dirt, stretching her hands up to him as she sobbed. “Then love me. Please love me.”

Every muscle in Julen’s body fought to crouch down beside Kaydee and pull her into a hug. But if he comforted her, he would kiss her, and if he kissed her -- oh gods, if he kissed her, then there was no more turning back. Julen couldn’t stand the thought of just leaving Kaydee alone in her misery. But he also couldn’t stay. For the second time in that many nights, Julen turned and bolted back inside the compound.

No longer concerned about stealth, Julen dashed down the dimly lit passage which took him to Uluki and Rollick’s room. Once there, he pounded on the door, until it was answered by a groggy-looking warrior. “Julen?”

“Kaydee,” Julen babbled. “By the garden. She needs someone with her now. But it can’t be me. I’m sorry, but it can’t be me.” Then, without explaining further, he darted off toward his own room.

To his great relief, Julen found Rosemary still asleep. After shedding his pants, Julen crawled into bed beside her, and buried his face in the familiar softness of his wife’s hair. Wrapped his arms around her and held on tight, until his own body finally managed to stop shaking.
Shim -- where the men are men, and the livestock are scared.

Re: Hard Truths

Post by Lylessa Uluki on

((Continued from viewtopic.php?f=5&t=1648))

Rollick was startled awake by hard, urgent knocking on their bedroom door. He gently disengaged himself from Uluki, who had fallen asleep with her arms wrapped around him; she murmured something unintelligible in her sleep as he moved her so her head rested on the pillow instead of his chest, and pulled the blanket up to cover her. Rollick yanked on a pair of trousers on his way to the door— at least he’d be decent enough to be seen, but he didn’t want to take the time to dress more fully and keep whoever was outside waiting.

“Julen?” Rollick’s head was a muddle of sleepy confusion. What was going on? Some sort of emergency? If so, why did things seem so quiet otherwise? Maybe Rosemary was sick, or…

When Julen relayed his clipped message about Kaydee and then shambled off as abruptly as he’d arrived, Rollick was if anything more confused. Was Kaydee the one who was sick or hurt? Or was she simply suffering the emotional effects of rejection, or… well, Rollick hoped it was rejection. If Julen had weakened, if he hadn’t been able to resist Kaydee’s charms, Kaydee was in for a lot more pain in the long run… as was Rosemary, and as was Julen himself.

Rollick had no idea what to say to Kaydee, but if she needed someone, he would try. He could be there, at least, even if they sat in silence. He was good at being there.

Uluki was awake now, though, and had already pulled on her chemise. “I’ll go.” She ran her fingers through her hair quickly. “You don’t need to wait up for me. Can I wear your sweater?” She didn’t care about how she looked, and she’d be warm without having to take the time to put on both a dress and a cloak.

“You should rest. All that healing, you’ll be exhausted tomorrow! I can…”

“I think Kaydee needs to talk to a woman right now,” Uluki said carefully, not wanting to make him feel she was dismissing or doubting him. “You’re a very wise man, but you’ve never been a teenage girl in love. I have, and sometimes… well, Kaydee doesn’t have her mother here, but I’m the closest available option at the moment. I should go to her. May I please wear the sweater…?”

Rollick nodded and passed it to her, and she pulled it on.

“Thanks. Go back to sleep, Rollick. I don’t know how long I’ll be.” They kissed quickly, and Uluki set off to find Kaydee.

Kaydee was a tragic sight, her beautiful beaded gown muddied at the knees from kneeling and her face streaked with tears. Uluki could tell the care that had gone into the hair, the dress— and she could see the pain in Kaydee’s eyes, eyes that must earlier have been full of hope.

Uluki knelt beside her in the dirt, looking no less out of place in her chemise and oversized sweater, with her small blue feet bare. “Kaydee, sweetheart…” But she didn’t really know where to begin. Instead, she simply held out her arms to offer a hug to the miserable young woman.
"When you feel like you can't go on, love heals.
Hold onto love, and it will lead you home. Love heals." -Rent

Re: Hard Truths

Post by Falcon Bertille on

At first, Uluki’s presence barely registered with Kaydee. Her eyes were too full of tears to see the fairy crouched beside her, and her ragged breath thundered in her ears, drowning out all other sounds. All she knew was that Julen had left her. Scorned her love and left her. Shoving her hands into the loose earth, Kaydee clutched at clumps of dirt, grinding it between her fingers as she sobbed. Everything was ruined. Everything. She wished she could just dig a big hole in the garden and live in it forever.

Then Kaydee realized she wasn’t alone. Wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her dress, she dried them enough to allow identification of her companion. Uluki. Recognition brought a rush of fear and shame, temporarily chasing away Kaydee’s grief. It was the middle of the night. Uluki should be in bed. But she wasn’t, she was out here, and maybe the whole family was awake, and it was all because of Kaydee. She’d promised them she wouldn’t cause any trouble, but now she had. They’d be mad at her. Make her go away and live on the streets again.

“N-not my fault,” Kaydee stammered. As lies went, it wasn’t particularly elaborate or convincing. But she was too shaken to do better. “Not my fault.”

Gradually, however, Uluki’s kind expression penetrated Kaydee’s jumbled thoughts. She didn’t look angry. Was it a trick? Was Uluki waiting until Kaydee moved closer, so she could strike her or shove her away? Or was it possible that Uluki really wasn’t mad? That seemed very unlikely to Kaydee, but she so desperately needed someone to comfort her, she decided to risk it.

Kaydee slumped into the offered hug, listless and awkward as a sack of wet laundry. “I-I thought he liked me. When we were hurt, he was so kind.” Kaydee remembered lying in the street beside Julen, watching him slip in and out consciousness, obviously fighting his own battle for survival. But he still used his precious strength to hold her, to whisper weak encouragements. “And last night, he kissed me. But he won’t even look at me. I don’t know what I did wrong! I-I tried to make myself pretty for him. I told him I’d pleasure him any way he wanted.”

Lifting her head, Kaydee looked at Uluki with imploring eyes. “What did I do wrong?”

Re: Hard Truths

Post by Lylessa Uluki on

Uluki felt a deep ache of sympathy for Kaydee. Being rejected was hell. And Kaydee had been through plenty of hell in her life; it wasn’t like the poor girl needed any more. Uluki hugged Kaydee gently, and spoke softly to her, and hoped that maybe she’d be able to provide a little comfort. But it wouldn’t be enough. No matter what Uluki said or did, Kaydee would still hurt, and that knowledge made Uluki hurt for her too.

“Julen does care about you,” Uluki said slowly, choosing her words. “I know he sees you as a close and valuable friend. What happened just now has nothing to do with your worthiness. You are very worthy of love, and compassion, and good treatment.”

Uluki had no illusions that Kaydee was going to accept that tonight, or a year from now, or maybe even ever. Still, it was the truth, and the more times she heard it, the more likely it was to sink in.

“But as you know, as you’ve seen from Julen coming to rescue you in the shanty town, one of his greatest virtues is loyalty. He has promised that loyalty to his wife. He pledged that kind of love— romantic love, sexual love— was for Rosemary alone. Julen can no more go back on his word than he can change who he is. If he could, he would no longer be the man who means so much to you.”

I tried to make myself pretty for him. I told him I’d pleasure him any way he wanted… The words rang in Uluki’s ears. Hadn’t she done the same thing herself? And not just once, either. That’s what Garz had demanded from her, what she’d given so unwisely, and why he’d been able to hurt her so badly. That’s how she had offered herself to Rollick, because she’d thought there was no other way he’d want her. That she was unworthy of love unless she gave everything and took nothing in return. That she would always have to beg for scraps of affection, because she would never be invited to the table.

Rollick hadn’t been as she’d expected him to be. As she had expected any man would be, at least toward her. He’d wanted to give, not to take things away. His love was a banquet. But if she hadn’t ended up with such a good man, if she’d picked someone who was willing to take advantage, she would have accepted any abuse, physical or mental, in exchange for “love,” and never known how unhealthy it was. She never would have considered the possibility she was lovable. And Uluki was deeply, painfully aware that Kaydee was at the very least skating dangerously close to setting herself up for the same mistake.

“Kaydee, when the time comes, when your heart has healed and you find someone to love who is free to love you back, make sure he does love you back. It’s not about you changing for him, bending for him, breaking for him. If a man doesn’t treat you as his equal, he doesn’t deserve you. It can’t be with Julen, but when you do find romance, remember you don’t exist for the sake of bringing him pleasure. Your heart matters. Your feelings matter. Love that doesn’t go both ways isn’t love.”
"When you feel like you can't go on, love heals.
Hold onto love, and it will lead you home. Love heals." -Rent

Re: Hard Truths

Post by Falcon Bertille on

Sinking deeper into Uluki’s embrace, Kaydee curled her body tight, as if she could somehow squeeze the misery from it. Uluki’s words reached her ears, but her mind was in no condition to really process them. Instead, Kaydee simply heard the nonsensical murmur of a voice speaking kindly to her -- and, for the moment, that was enough. Slowly, her sobs dwindled away.

But when Uluki mentioned finding another romance, Kaydee shook her head violently. “No! I’ll never fall in love again. Never. If I can’t have Julen, I don’t want anybody.” Oddly, this resolution made Kaydee feel a little better. Stronger. She wouldn’t settle for some lesser man. She would carry her pain alone. And maybe one day, Julen would notice her bravery, her unwavering devotion...

Not wanting to burden Uluki any more than she already had, Kaydee pulled from the fairy’s arms and sat up. But doing so called attention to the mess she’s made of her dress. Its sleeve was stained with her tears, dirt clung to the silk in large brown patches, and several of the delicate beads had been torn off. Again, despair filled Kaydee.

“I borrowed this dress from the storeroom without asking. I was going to put it right back, just the way I found it. But now it’s ruined! Big Brother is going to be really mad at me.” Kaydee’s mind raced for a solution. “Maybe we could bury it in the garden? And no one would ever notice that it was missing?”

Re: Hard Truths

Post by Lylessa Uluki on

Uluki made no response to Kaydee’s passionate assertion that she would never fall in love again. Uluki had no doubt Kaydee believed it with all her heart right now… but such a promise made at sixteen was unlikely to survive the test of time. That was for the best, but there was no point trying to talk her out of it. In this moment it would seem impossible the pain could heal, and once it had, this night would be a distant memory.

When she was Kaydee’s age, Uluki had also believed she would never love again. She’d probably said almost the same words, just with a different name as the object of devotion. But to bring that up seemed patronizing and insensitive, so she just listened, and continued to hold Kaydee comfortingly.

When Kaydee made her suggestion about the dress, Uluki smiled but shook her head. “I don’t think that’s the best solution. We’d only dig it up again when we tried to plant the garden. But I don’t think it’s ruined. Tomorrow we can work on getting the stains out. If nothing else, we’ll alter the dress with the material that isn’t dirty; it’s got plenty of fabric. It’s better to try to fix things than to hide them.”

There was probably some sort of broader life lesson in that, but Uluki was too tired to think of it right now. Trying to focus on something more nebulous than Kaydee’s sadness and the dress was beyond her, in her current state of emotional and physical exhaustion.

“Aorle won’t be mad at you. I think he’ll understand that it was an accident, and if he doesn’t, I’ll explain it to him. I’ll make sure he knows you didn’t mean any harm, that you planned to just borrow it, and it only got dirty by mistake.”

Uluki paused, but realized she should say something else. “I think it’s good that you think of him that way. As a big brother. I’m glad you two are close. It’s… I think it’s easier to heal that way, when you have connections to people. People who become like family. Aorle is a good person to have for a big brother. So I’m glad.”

Uluki met Kaydee’s eyes and smiled. “I’ll sit with you for as long as you want. But when you’re ready, we should go back upstairs and try to sleep. Tomorrow will be here all too soon, and we need to be ready to face it. I’m in no hurry, though. Take as long as you need.”
"When you feel like you can't go on, love heals.
Hold onto love, and it will lead you home. Love heals." -Rent

Re: Hard Truths

Post by Falcon Bertille on

“Do you really think you can fix it?” Kaydee picked nervously at one of the dress’s sleeve cuffs, where some beads had been torn loose. But there was hope in her voice. She’d watched Uluki teach sewing to some of the other refugees, and in her eyes, the skill was almost as miraculous as magic. Maybe Uluki really could salvage the dress. And then no one would have anything to get mad about. “I...I’ll help. If you don’t think I’d just make it worse.”

Tonight, however, neither of them was feeling up to any repair efforts. With a mute nod, Kaydee accepted Uluki’s suggestion that they return to their rooms. Now that the initial violence of her grief had waned, Kaydee looked forward to the oblivion of sleep, when both mind and body could retreat from their pain. Together, the pair headed back inside.

“Thank you,” Kaydee whispered, when Uluki gave her a final goodnight hug. “For promising to speak with Big Brother about the dress...and for everything else. I won’t cause any more trouble for you. I really won’t.”

Then, careful not to wake the other girls, Kaydee slipped back into her room and took off the dirty dress. After carefully folding it, she set it in a safe place to await the morning. But she didn’t immediately lie down on the pile of cloaks that was her bed. Instead, she lingered in the darkness, sliding her hands lightly over her naked body, imagining what might have happened that night. What she’d wanted so much to happen. A shuddered raced along her spine at the memory Julen’s kiss. In her mind, she copied it over and over, placing it on her throat, her breast, the curve of her thigh...

Cloth rustled somewhere in the stillness, and Zee began to snore. Startled by the reminder of others present, Kaydee scrambled into her own bed, burying herself deep beneath the covers. And so, clinging to the fragments of a shattered dream, she finally drifted off to sleep.

Re: Hard Truths

Post by Lylessa Uluki on

Uluki nodded in response to Kaydee’s question. “Yes, I do think we can fix it.” It was a deliberate shift from Kaydee’s wording— this was a problem they would solve together, not just something Uluki was setting right on her own. “I would welcome your help. You won’t make it worse. We’ll take as much time as we need, and in the end it’ll turn out as good as new. Maybe better. There’s no need to worry.”

Uluki gave Kaydee a reassuring and sincere smile. If Uluki had any concerns about repairing the dress, it was about her own skills, not Kaydee’s ability to assist. Uluki was competent at sewing and had no trouble with basic garments, but she didn’t consider her work artful, and it was almost never fancy. Rosemary would be able to do much better… but obviously involving her was out of the question under the circumstances. Uluki would have to explain how the damage happened. Besides which, fixing the dress would be a valuable practical experience for Kaydee to improve her sewing skills— but trying to make Rosemary and Kaydee work together seemed like a bad idea all around. Uluki wished Aimee and Mercedes were here. Aimee would know exactly how to create a new design for the dress, and Mercedes’s nimble fingers would make short work of the problem. But, Uluki reminded herself, they weren’t here, and missing them wouldn’t make them appear. Uluki and Kaydee would have to do the best they could on their own.

Uluki and Kaydee walked upstairs together, then hugged goodnight. “You’re welcome,” Uluki responded to her thanks. “Try not to worry so much about trouble. Friends help each other. I consider you my friend, and I hope… maybe you’ll consider me your friend, too. Goodnight, Kaydee. I hope your sleep is peaceful.”

Once Kaydee had rejoined the other girls, Uluki quietly returned to her own room. She assumed Rollick had gone back to sleep, so she slipped out of her clothes with as little noise as possible; she didn’t want to wake him. She realized she was mistaken, however, when she drew near the bed, and he stretched out his arms toward her to welcome her back into his embrace. “Glad you’re back, dear one,” he said sleepily as he pulled her toward him. “I love you. How’s Kaydee?”

She snuggled against him, feeling his warmth as she stretched her body against his side and laid her head on his chest, so she could feel his breathing and hear his heart beating. “I love you too,” she murmured. “Kaydee will be alright. She’s upset, but she’s coping.”

“Best we can hope for, I suppose.” He had one arm around her, and his other hand stroked her hair, then her cheek.

She lay silently for a moment, just enjoying, then, “Rollick?”


“You’re wonderful. I’m glad we’re married.”

He smiled at that, and didn’t ask the reason for her sudden declaration. “You’re wonderful too. I’m also glad to be married to you.”

Eventually his slower, even breathing told her he’d fallen asleep. She touched his face gently, too gently to wake him, tracing her fingers along the line of his strong jaw. She was so happy with him, and so very, very lucky. Her conversation with Kaydee had reminded her of that… as if she needed reminding. Rollick had been well worth waiting for. Thinking such pleasant, comfortable thoughts, Uluki also drifted off to sleep.
"When you feel like you can't go on, love heals.
Hold onto love, and it will lead you home. Love heals." -Rent

Re: Hard Truths

Post by Lylessa Uluki on

Dash reached for the cup of wine and drank deeply. Uluki frowned. That was a lot of wine, and Dash was small, as well as being young. Had Uluki agreed to let her drink that? She couldn’t remember.

The spy danced around the table, her laughter filling the banqueting hall. “I’m Asra!” she chanted. “Asra, Asra, Asra. I’m lost and helpless, and you have to protect me.” But she didn’t
sound helpless. Uluki wondered if Dash should be drinking her wine.

“Are you sure?” Uluki asked doubtfully. “There have been people around. They want to hurt us…”

Asra laughed, high-pitched and frantic. “What people?”

Uluki struggled to grab hold of the thought, but it wriggled away like a minnow. “I… I can’t remember…” Why was everyone in the hall wearing a strange, brightly coloured masquerade mask? Was it a party? Uluki didn’t have a mask. She must have forgotten to wear one. She blushed with embarrassment, and had no way to hide it.

Dash drained the cup, and it dropped from her hand. The wine poured back out of her mouth… but it wasn’t wine, it was blood. Blood from her eyes, her nose, her ears… pouring out of her like a crimson torrent, filling the room like a flash flood.

Uluki was swimming in the thick, warm liquid, trying to reach Dash. Trying to save her. The blood filled her mouth and nose; not her own blood, Dash’s, and she was drowning, sinking…

Uluki whimpered softly in her sleep, too softly to wake her husband, and shifted slightly without returning to alertness…

The rapier gouged Uluki, not stabbing into her but opening a gash along her arm as it came from behind her. “I’m alright!” she called. It was Mara Lian who wielded the sword, fighting on Uluki’s side. Mara, who always got too enthusiastic in battle and became almost frightening. Obviously she’d gotten caught up in the heat of the moment and wasn’t controlling her blade very well. Uluki mentally dismissed the injury and returned her attention to the fireball she was conjuring.

The sword came again, once again tearing into her arm, painful but not doing serious injury. “Mara, be
careful!” Uluki understood getting immersed in the battle to the exclusion of all else, but Mara was doing a very poor job of watching out for her allies, and might kill one of them if she didn’t govern herself better. Uluki didn’t bother to turn around as she reprimanded Mara; she concentrated instead on moving the fireball toward the wizard who was preparing magic of his own.

Uluki saw Mara in her peripheral vision, moving beside her and then slightly in front of her. Uluki smiled reassuringly to show that the mistake was forgiven. Mara stabbed her again. Her eyes were cold and cruel, utterly empty of emotion as her blade opened a wound along Uluki’s ribs. Uluki fell, dazed, as blood seeped from her cuts. She was betrayed. Betrayed by one she has trusted, kept secrets for, and considered a friend. Mara stood above Uluki, poised to drive her sword into Uluki’s chest. Uluki looked up at her with wounded and uncomprehending eyes.

In that instant, the confusion turned to rage. “You demon bitch!” Uluki shrieked as crystals of ice exploded from her fingertips. Mara, only a few feet away, took the impact as though the rock-hard ice shards were so many swords. Justice. Mara deserved that. No pity, and no quarter. Betrayal would be answered for, blood for blood.

This time it was Mara’s turn to look at Uluki with disbelief. Her bloodied lips moved in what might have been an apology or a plea for mercy, but it was too late for either. The life was gone from Mara like the last flicker of a candle flame.

Uluki turned her attention back to the Council— her opponents, her enemies. There was only one melee fighter among the six Council members; the others were casters. The fighter was already injured. It looked to Uluki like he had broken facial bones, and blood dripped from his nose and lip. Aligosh had apparently gotten a few good hits in when Mara had cast her darkness spell and abruptly cut off the Council warrior’s line of sight. It shouldn’t be hard for Uluki to finish the injured man off. The ice shot from her fingertips again, and though she was further from him and unable to do the amount of damage she had to Mara, the impact slammed the man against the wall. He hadn’t been expecting an attack from her direction, and she’d caught him completely off guard. At the very least she’d broken some of his ribs, and probably done some internal damage too. As he gasped for air she quickly conjured another fireball and hurled it at him, catching him squarely in the face and chest. As he fell, she noticed how blue his eyes were.

All of a sudden something seemed wrong.

She wasn’t supposed to have done this.

But the Council members were her foes. She showed them no pity because they would have shown her none. If she hadn’t done that to the fighter, he would have killed her.

No, not killed her. Killed her wasn’t right. What would he have done?

He would have died for her.

That didn’t make any sense. The man was her enemy. Given the opportunity to kill him, there was no reason to spare him. He had no claim on her mercy. And yet… and yet… part of her brain was screaming at her that the fighter wasn’t supposed to die. She wasn’t supposed to kill him.

She was supposed to save him.

The battle raged all around her, but nothing mattered except her and the mortally wounded man. Taking slow steps, she somehow covered the distance between them in a blink of an eye. Uluki knelt beside the fighter, whose body was an aching, burned, blood-soaked hell of injury. Her hand caressed his cheek absently, as though she wasn’t really there.

The dying fighter’s blue eyes focused on her face. “Dear one?”

“Rollick! Rollick, oh gods!” Her inertia and sense of unreality instantly turned to panic.

“Uluki… my love…” He was barely able to draw the breath to form the words. “What did I do to make you hate me so? What did I do?”

“No! No, I love you!” This was all wrong. It wasn’t supposed to go this way. “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. I’ll heal you.”

His eyes were trusting in spite of everything. She laid her hands on his chest and concentrated. Nothing happened. No warm well of energy in her. No healing in her touch. She looked at him in terror, and began to sob, harsh, hysterical gasps that ripped out of her. “No… no… Rollick…”

But he was fading, like the very last moments of the day as sunset melts into darkness. And then he was gone, and all the light and warmth and joy passed from the world along with him.

“Dear one?” Rollick was gently shaking her awake.

“I killed you. I killed you, I killed you…”

“No you didn’t, my love. I’m alive and well, as you can see.”

“I killed Mara for betraying me, and then I killed you.”

“You didn’t kill Mara either. Do you remember what happened?”

“She was going to stab me. I was going to die.”

“Then you smiled at her. You forgave her, and you smiled, and that upset her so much she dropped her sword. Your compassion for her made her feel some kind of remorse.”

“That’s what’s real? Not the dream?”

“That’s what’s real. And you didn’t kill me either. You decided I merited your forgiveness too.”

She threw her arms around his neck and clung to him, and he soothingly stroked her back and her hair. Uluki murmured, “I don’t want you to be hurt. I don’t want to be away from you. I love you.”

“I love you too, dear one. I would die for you. But given the choice, I’d rather live for you.”

Uluki buried her face in the crook where his neck joined his shoulder. “I’d rather that too.”

For the next few hours, Uluki rested peacefully; the nightmares, if not entirely forgotten, were at least pushed aside to make room for dreamless sleep. When it was time to get up, Uluki felt some residual tiredness, but was basically refreshed and ready to begin her day.

That day, as it turned out, got off to a very happy start. When Uluki and Rollick went to collect the baby, he drew his tiny hand out of Dash’s and took slow and wobbly steps toward his parents— the first time he had walked unaided.

Uluki broke into a broad grin, and Rollick beamed with fatherly pride as they passed Martin back and forth, complimenting him on what a clever, good, and talented baby he was.

Thus, in spite of her nightmares, the stresses and traumas of the day before, and some residual tiredness from her magic use, Uluki began her tasks for the day with a smile and a light heart.

The first thing she wanted to do this morning was to find Julen. The evening before she had resolved to talk to him about his uncontrolled magic, and now there was the additional matter of the situation with Kaydee; Uluki would not pry into the details, but she did want to make sure he was alright. After eating breakfast with her family, Uluki gathered up Martin and set off to find Julen.
"When you feel like you can't go on, love heals.
Hold onto love, and it will lead you home. Love heals." -Rent

Re: Hard Truths

Post by Julen on

The brush of Rosemary’s foot against his leg roused Julen from his sleep. Rolling over, he tickled her ankle with his toes, until a sleepy giggle rewarded his efforts.

“Stop,” Rosemary tried to protest. But Julen caught the hand that she shoved at him and covered it with kisses. In the pale light of morning, last night seemed like a strange dream, full of desires he could no longer understand. How could someone else have ever tempted him? How could he have ever wanted anyone other than the woman who now lay beside him in this bed? Thank the gods for Rollick’s wise words, which had kept him from making a horrible mistake.

Rosemary shook her head. “You foolish man. Now I suppose I have no choice but to get up and cook you breakfast.”

“No choice at all,” Julen agreed. However, before he let her go, Julen pressed his cheek against the hand he still held, savoring the warmth of her skin. “I love you, Rosemary. I love you forever.”

“You damn well better.” Rosemary’s eyes flashed with happiness and triumph. Fiercely, she hugged him, before slipping into her clothes.

Since getting ready also included putting on his armor, Julen took considerably longer than his wife. So, by the time he was finished, Rosemary had already gone on ahead of him. As Julen walked alone down the hallway, he lingered for a moment outside the door to the room where Uluki’s daughters slept. Was Kaydee inside? Was she alright? Julen’s fingers brushed against the wood, but he pulled them away. Seeing him so soon would only reawaken her pain. No matter how much he wanted to comfort her, the best thing he could do for Kaydee was to give her some distance.

When Julen arrived downstairs, Rosemary had already joined some of the other women who were preparing the morning meal. The smell of oats being cooked over an open fire elicited a rumble of hunger in Julen’s stomach. Hoping to make the time pass more quickly, he’d nearly decided on squeezing in a few rounds of archery practice, when he noticed one of the refugees who wasn’t busy making breakfast. And he remembered another task which needed doing.

“Stella? That locket you’re wearing -- it wouldn’t be right for me to take it. But surely you’d be willing to make a trade? It can’t possibly mean as much to you as it does to me.”

Stella fingered the piece of jewelry, looking reluctant. But, in the end, two rings, one jar of the scented body cream which had come in Mavelle’s trunk, and the promise that Stella would receive Julen’s cheese ration for the week, bought it back for him. After taking the locket from Stella, Julen flipped it open. To his dismay, but not really surprise, he found it empty. Well, that wasn’t an insurmountable problem. Rosemary would be happy to provide another precious strand of hair. Smiling, Julen hung the locket back around his throat, where it rested slightly above the medal Kaydee had made for him, coexisting in an uneasy truce.

Leaving Stella to gloat over her new treasures, Julen joined Rosemary and some of the other refugees for breakfast. Although the ladies proved to be more boisterous, as well as somewhat more vulgar, than what Julen was accustomed to, he found them pleasant company. It was nice to see Rosemary making friends.

After breakfast, Julen started to help with the washing up, until he spotted Uluki, who had apparently just finished her own morning meal. Abandoning his half-cleaned bowl, Julen headed over to speak with her. He knew that either she or Rollick must have comforted Kaydee last night, and he wanted to find out how the poor girl was doing.

“Uluki? I’m so sorry I had to disturb you last night, especially after everything you’d already been through. I just...” Julen trailed off and shook his head. “I guess Aorle wouldn’t approve, but sometimes the surest way to win a battle is to run away from it.”
Shim -- where the men are men, and the livestock are scared.

Re: Hard Truths

Post by Lylessa Uluki on

Uluki’s face registered surprise when Julen apologized to her for waking them up. She’d been tired the night before, and had been glad to return to her bed when Kaydee no longer had need of her comfort, but she had never seen it as anything other than her own responsibility to deal with the situation. She and Rollick had often been awakened in the night when they were needed, in their various roles— as parents, as friends, and as helpers to refugees and the community in general in their old home. Her expectation was that she was available when her help was required, not that she was always entitled to a full night’s sleep. The apology was kind, but she didn’t consider it necessary.

“That’s alright, Julen. We didn’t mind. I’m actually glad you came to get us. I think if you had attempted to comfort Kaydee yourself, you would have made her feel even more… confused. It’s too easy for the boundaries of friendship to blur, especially when you’re feeling emotional. I’m sure the two of you will need to talk again, to define that friendship, but it’s probably best to give her time to calm down. That conversation can wait until she’s less vulnerable, and more able to hear your words over the roar of her own feelings.”

Julen hadn’t asked directly how Kaydee was doing, how she was taking the news, but Uluki assumed he would want to know, so she informed him without prompting. “I think Kaydee will be alright. She’s not in wonderful shape at the moment, but she’s dealing with her pain. She’s stronger than she realizes. It just takes time. It’s hard. Hard for her, hard for you… just hard.”

Martin made a happy gurgling sound at her and yanked on her braided hair. Uluki smiled at him, but gently redirected his fingers to the stuffed dog she’d brought with her, who could be squeezed and pulled without causing pain.

“We’ll do our best to comfort Kaydee. She and Dash are close, and… you’ll think this foolish, but Rollick and I both feel rather parental toward her. I know she’s all but a woman grown, and… well, I know she doesn’t think about us like that at all. We don’t expect her to. We aren’t trying to replace her mother, or to get in the way of the bond she has with Aorle, or you. I know those ties will always be special.” Though the bond with Julen had become rather complicated recently, of course…

“I hope she considers me a friend, at least, or someday will, but that’s up to her. She’s under no obligation to feel close with us, but we do care a great deal about her. I just… wanted you to know that. That we care. That we want to help her; it’s not just a feeling of obligation.”

“Anyway, I’m glad you came to speak to me, Julen. I was actually looking for you. I wanted to tell about how Kaydee was doing, but I also wanted to talk about… last night.” Realizing his primary thoughts of last night probably were about Kaydee, she clarified, “I mean, with the magic. With what happened when you used it.”
"When you feel like you can't go on, love heals.
Hold onto love, and it will lead you home. Love heals." -Rent

Re: Hard Truths

Post by Julen on

“Thanks for being so understanding about it.” Julen knew his decision to flee rather than comfort Kaydee hadn’t been strictly based on wanting to avoid confusing her. But he wasn’t proud of his struggle against temptation. Anyway, it seemed likely Uluki had already guessed that part, and was just being diplomatic about it. “I’m relieved that you think I did the right thing.”

He was also relieved that Kaydee seemed to be doing well. At least, as well as someone could be expected to be doing under the circumstances. “I agree with you about giving her some time. It’s probably for the best that Aorle plans on taking the Lightswords to Shim soon. Maybe not seeing me around will help her emotions settle. Out of sight, out of mind -- at least, that’s what they say.” Julen remembered the four months he’d spent away from Rosemary. She’d never been out of his mind, not for a single instant. But that was probably different.

“I’m so glad that you and Rollick will be here to look after her while I’m gone. I don’t know if Kaydee wants to be part of a family. I don’t know if she’s even sure what a family is. But I do know that being included by you and Rollick, being cared for by you like she was one of your own daughters, has really helped her. She’s still got a long way to go. But you’re helping her get there.”

When Martin gurgled and grabbed Uluki’s braid, Julen couldn’t repress a smile. “You’re growing up fast, aren’t you?” he cooed to the infant. “Your mommy and daddy must be so proud.”

But Uluki’s next question raised a subject which brought Julen very little pride.

“Ah...yes. The magic.” Julen gave Uluki and apologetic glance before dropping his gaze to the floor. “I don’t know what went wrong. Usually, when I sing, I don’t sense anything. I’m not even aware that I’m casting the illusions. But this time, I felt like I’d swallowed lightning. Or been hooked up to some damnable gnomish device. You know?”

Julen fiddled with the hilt of his sword, restlessly drumming his fingers against it. “I think maybe it happened because I spent so much time practicing with Soubrette. The magic built up in me. And I didn’t know how to discharge it. Or harness it. So my body just kind of expelled it...violently.”

“I know I nearly got Rollick killed. Hell, I nearly got us all killed. But you won’t need to worry about being in danger from me for much longer.” Julen raised his head, meeting Uluki’s eyes with a steady gaze. “Aorle and I talked, and we both agreed -- after Shim, it would be best if I turned myself over to the Judges. For a safety evaluation.”

Julen did his best to appear stoic and resolved about this, but fear whispered beneath the mask of his rigid expression.
Shim -- where the men are men, and the livestock are scared.

Re: Hard Truths

Post by Lylessa Uluki on

Uluki wasn’t so sure she agreed with Julen about the “out of sight, out of mind” principle. She and Rollick hadn’t spent any extended time apart since they’d been married, no more than a few days at a time, but before that, when he’d been possessed by the evil god, by necessity he’d gone months without seeing her, or seeing anyone else. They’d sent messages to each other, so they hadn’t been completely without one another, but they hadn’t been face-to-face during that time, hadn’t touched. Not till the battle. That had all been before they were a couple, and Uluki hadn’t thought there was any real hope they would be, in spite of her strong feelings for him. She was determined to save him, to give him his life back, but she hadn’t expected that life to include her as anything more than a friend. What would Rollick want with a clingy, broken, scarred Duskling? She’d assumed she wasn’t good enough for him. But even so, even in the time spent apart, even though she had thought she had no real chance of being loved by him, he was never far from her thoughts. Even when she was focused on other things, he was on her mind, always there like her own shadow. Would it really be any different for Kaydee?

Uluki supposed it didn’t make any practical difference. Julen couldn’t exactly refuse to go to Shim, even if he wanted to— and she couldn’t imagine him wanting to, not when there were people in danger, and he wouldn’t leave others to do the fighting for him when his own home was under siege. Regardless of how it affected Kaydee, Julen would have to go to Shim. So speculation about whether out of sight meant out of mind was moot. And anyway, surely it couldn’t be harder on Kaydee than seeing him everywhere she turned. Some time apart was probably best, whether or not it lessened her desire for him.

A shy smile lit up her face when Julen said that spending time with their family had helped Kaydee. She hoped that was true. She didn’t want to overwhelm or smother the poor girl, but she did want to show caring and affection. “We’ll keep helping. As much as we can. I promise.” And of course she beamed with delight and agreement when Julen made his comment about Martin, and how proud she and Rollick must be. It was true; they were.

Uluki looked at Julen like he was insane, however, when he mentioned turning himself over to the Judges. She’d known he planned to in time, and while it made her nervous, she knew it was probably for the best— but doing so now seemed downright suicidal.

“A safety evaluation? Julen… I do not wish to second-guess Aorle. I know he’s far wiser than I’ll ever be. But he wasn’t there last night. He didn’t see… if the Judges ask you to demonstrate your magic, and what happened happens again…”

She paused, collecting her thoughts. She didn’t want to sound accusatory, but this was a serious problem. “Julen, I know you’ve been careful to avoid using magic when you could, for your own safety and that of others. But the downside is, you have very little experience doing magic, so you have no control. I’m not upset about last night. What happened to Rollick wasn’t your fault. But uncontrolled magic is a danger. Believe me, I know; I accidentally killed someone before I learned to contain mine. The Judges may overlook the problem if they can’t see a way for illusions to do harm, but they don’t seem like the sort to turn a blind eye even so. They say even healing is dangerous because it corrupts people. I don’t think they’ll accept that your magic is safe just because of what it is.”

“I think before you do this, before you report to the Judges, you need to practice. Gain some control. Make it so your magic really is safe. In your free time, find some old building where no one will see, where no one from here would be involved, and make it so your magic obeys you. Figure out what it feels like to contain your magic. Practice will teach you how, and I can try to help too. Magic that doesn’t obey is as much of a danger as the Judges.”

“I’m not suggesting you lie to Aorle. If you decide to do this, you should be honest with him about it. Explain why.” She sighed and shifted the baby absently. “Do what you think is right, of course. And I’m sure Aorle knows better than I do. But honestly, Julen, if you go to the Judges and what happened last night with Panterras happens again in front of them, if you lose control, you’ll basically be killing yourself. I don’t want to see that happen.”

Her purple eyes were full of sincerity, and very, very worried.
"When you feel like you can't go on, love heals.
Hold onto love, and it will lead you home. Love heals." -Rent

Re: Hard Truths

Post by Julen on

“I...I hadn’t thought of that,” Julen confessed, in response to Uluki’s concerns. As absurd as the oversight now seemed, it hadn’t occurred to him that the Judges might actually want to see a demonstration of his ability. He’d assumed that they’d just take his word for it. After all, what kind of madman would claim to cast magic when he really couldn’t? Unfortunately, the truth was, he had no idea what a safety evaluation might entail. If it did involve any prolonged use of his magic, losing control again could be a very real possibility. And Julen doubted that such a lapse would persuade anyone he was safe.

“It’s true that Aorle doesn’t know about what happened during our ambush of Panterras. I really should tell him, as it may change his plans for how we should proceed. I would have discussed it with him last night, right when we got back, but Rosemary was there and I got a little...distracted.” Julen smiled sheepishly and prodded the floor with the toe of his boot.

Uluki’s recommendation that he begin practicing his illusions raised mix emotions in Julen. On one hand, he agreed with her. He didn’t want to pose a danger to the people around him. He didn’t want to make a mess of his safety evaluation. But practicing came with its own set of risks. “It’s tricky. My illusions don’t always stay in the same room with me. When I first met Aorle, it was because I accidentally made an angelic vision appear in the street outside my room. Any place I chose for practice would have to be quite isolated.”

“Also, I’m not sure how much progress I could make on my own. If my magic built up again, and I felt like I did, I’m not sure how I would handle it differently. Repeating the same mistake seems unlikely to help anything. Of course, if you would truly be willing to help me...?” Julen gave Uluki an almost pathetically hopeful look. “I know it would put you at greater risk, and is much more than I have any right to ask for, but I really would be grateful.”

There was one final reason why Julen felt unsure about practicing, although he didn’t speak it. It seemed too ridiculous. Too arrogant to deserve being heard by others. Still, it had begun to plague him with increasing frequency as his combat skills continued to develop. He was a warrior now -- a warrior with magic. If that magic remained raw, untrained, the Judges might not consider him worthy. But if it became something he could truly wield? They might want him to become a battlemage. And frankly, Julen would rather die. “Thanks for your advice on this, Uluki. I appreciate it. I’ll speak to Aorle about it as soon as possible. Ultimately, his decision is the one I will have to abide by.”

With that settled, Julen’s mind returned to something Uluki had said earlier. “You...accidentally killed someone?” The idea of Uluki killing a person seemed nearly impossible to Julen. Of course, technically, she’d been part of their trap for Panterras. But that was different. She’d played no direct role in his actual murder. Uluki was a healer, a nurturer, a mother and a friend. She gave life. She didn’t take it away. “What...what happened?”
Shim -- where the men are men, and the livestock are scared.

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