Chapter twenty-four: What He Wouldn’t Give
Before leaving the hotel, Shaethan had caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror. He rarely saw himself, and so it was easy to see the progression of the dilapidation of his appearance. Though in reality he was no more than sixty-eight, grey hairs took firm possession of his head, and his eyebrows and beard were patches of lightening silver. Wrinkles snuggled into his leathery face, and his eyes sagged. The mirror in the hotel had presented to him an unknown man of seventy, maybe even eighty.
Was this really the price of choosing not to eat like an animal? Even the thought of the spiders gave him the shivers. Was it just his appearance, or was he accelerating toward death? Every prolonged yawn, every stumbled footstep, every squint into the distance had Shaethan fearing the worst. He had never expected to deal with such ailments, had never expected himself to grow old.
Such was the case with the sagging log house before him. The vibrant colours of the autumn leaves around them made him and the house look all the more old and grey. In this setting the house was more like a shack, forgotten in the woods, and if not for the weak trail of smoke drifting from the chimney, Shaethan would have thought it was vacant. When he had first come upon it he had narrowed his eyes in confusion, wondering if he had the right house, wondering if his memory was starting to fail him also.
Shaethan breathed the aura of the forest, of frosty nights and leaves preparing for slumber, the perfume of his youth. Wespiser meant hope, and long ago he had laughed at the cold, sloppy greyness, but now he trembled in fear, surrounded by the gold and the red.
This was the house, where so many kisses were stolen, where he would meet Drei so they could sneak off into the night like children, evading her snarly father. Here was where he had sat through endless awkward family dinners, deflecting insults from Drei’s father and sneaking rolled eyes with Drei and her sister. Here was where Shaethan was nearly killed by Drei’s father, when she moved out to live with him in the hotel, and her father had attacked him as he helped her move her things out.
Oh, sweet memories! What he wouldn’t give to go back to that time.
He had grown more and more nervous as he approached. Doubts and misgivings suffocating him. And now he stood there, wondering where his courage had gone and what he should do next. What did one say to someone against whom they had committed the most unforgivable sin, to whom one had no right to even mention forgiveness? Someone for whom one ached so badly one crawled back anyway, casting all dignity aside?
What did one say when the only person who had loved them unconditionally would justly spit in their face?
Such was his anguish that Shaethan nearly ripped out his hair. It was all he could do to drag himself to the stoop and rap twice on the door. The image of Drei’s disgusted, enraged face taunted him, burned him, making him want to scream for how much he wanted to see her anyway.
The door creaked open, and he bolted.
The brunette woman poked out her nose, dark eyes at first curious, a friendly smile touching her lips. As she peered farther and emerged from behind the door, her expression shifted to mild confusion. She looked about, still smiling, looking everywhere but the tree where Shaethan trembled and watched her, heart making erratic jumps. Had he been wrong?
“Tasrena!” he hissed. Drei’s sister squinted in his direction, recognition and excitement etching on her face. No matter what, Tas was always happy to see him. If Drei had mentioned anything about the horrible end to their relationship, the knowledge hadn’t made an imprint in Tasrena’s hyperactive mind.
The woman – who always looked more like a girl to Shaethan, in her boundless bubbly happiness and simple enjoyment of life – closed the door quietly behind her. She furtively glanced at a window of the house where the shades were drawn before darting across the overgrown lawn, tackling Shaethan to the ground.
“You’re back!” she jubilated in a hushed voice, clinging to him as though he were her best friend returned from a long journey. It was as though she had been expecting him for all those years.
Shaethan ruefully wished he could hope for such an enthusiastic homecoming from Drei.
“Tas, you haven’t changed a bit,” he said, kissing her. She giggled. She really hadn’t changed, except that instead of her usual bright colours, her dress was a faded grey that perhaps was once the orange of the Red Forest. Now, in its midst, she looked washed-out, drab. Even her smile was not enough to lift the gloom.
“But you have!” She leapt to her feet and pulled him up, taking his face in her little hands and scrutinizing him. “Were you always this old?”
Shaethan smiled in spite of the ache in his heart, and was about to reply, when there came a long drawn squeal. Tasrena’s father came into view, tiredly dragging a worn plow over the cracked walk. Tas’s hand went to her heart with a muted shriek, and she shrunk behind Shaethan. Her noise attracted the other man’s attention, and his eyes were suddenly on Shaethan.
A solid, horrifying moment scraped by. “You,” he snarled, dropping his plow with a clang and taking a step.
And though his voice was weak, his eyes were suddenly ablaze with uncontainable fury, like the fire of the Red Forest. “How dare you! How dare you show your face here, you dirty – ” And amidst a tirade of unrepeatable profanities, the old man drew a long knife from under his cloak, charging with surprising speed. Tas shrieked and dashed into the house, and Shaethan watched in dumb shock as the old man came at him, regaining his senses just in time to sidestep the arc of the blade. He whirled, dodging blows, managing to extract himself and race headlong into the woods.
“And don’t you dare come back!” screamed the old man, flinging his knife. It stuck five inches in a tree where Shaethan’s head had been an instant ago.
He truly had come full circle.
After stopping to catch his breath, Shaethan straightened, blood dripping from his forearm and shoulder, a flame of its own lighting up in his eyes. He had not come this far for nothing. If Drei wasn’t there, he didn’t have one guess as to where else she could be. He crept back to the shack in the woods and waited, watching. It wasn’t long before the old man, tired from his outburst, retired to the house and Tas came out again, singing in a high, clear voice and searching for Shaethan. Unbeknownst to her father, Shaethan always came back.
“Tas, over here!” He hissed, rustling a nearby bush. She rushed over to him, face wild and upset.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she blubbered, clutching his sleeve.
“It’s okay Tas! That’s okay. But I need you to tell me, where’s your sister gone to? Where’s Drei?”
“Drei…oh, poor Drei. She cries so much!”
He pushed aside the pain in his chest. “Where is she? Maybe I can help her.”
“Oh, the things she said about you! And where is Reth? What happened to Rethemead?” Suddenly Tasrena was suspicious, taking a step back from him. Desperately, Shaethan reached for her, forgetting that this was the worst thing to do. She stumbled back and tried to run, but he caught her wrist, cringing as he waited for her to start shrieking. But she just stared at him as though he were a stranger.
“Tas, Tas, listen to me. I never stopped loving Drei, you know that! I love her like the sun loves the springtime, remember?” It was a simile Tasrena herself had joyfully used to describe them. “Reth is fine, see?” He passed her an image of Chimley, concentrating over a sword. Tasrena always loved it when Shaethan showed her his memories.
He had almost succeeded in forgetting the awful name Drei had given their son.
Behind them, the shack door creaked open, and Shaethan caught a glimpse of Tas’s father peering through the trees. “Tasrena?” he wheezed.
Tas whipped her head around, her eyes darting between Shaethan and her father. Shaethan tightened his grip, trying to get her to focus.
“Tas, where is Drei? I need to show her that Chim – that Reth is okay. Maybe then she will stop crying.”
“Tasrena! Where are you?”
“The house on the hill east of the palace,” Tas hissed, wrenching her arm from Shaethan’s grasp, and was gone.
“Here I am, Father! Look at the leaf I found!”
Once again, Shaethan stood in front of a house, drowning in nerves and dying to turn and go back to the hotel. The only difference was the houses, and oh, the difference was vast.
Its elegance, its youth hurt Shaethan’s eyes, made him sick with its perfection. He wanted nothing more than to find a single scratch, a loose flake of paint, a red leaf on the browning lawn, but there were none. Every blade and shutter was in its ordained place, the vane twirled uniformly, and the rows of late-blooming roses went on uninterrupted, like soldiers lined up for a review. It had all of its arrogant grandeur properly proportioned, not a wisp of superciliousness out of place.
It practically reeked of nobility, airs that choked him.
He was having trouble drawing breath as he hobbled up the long marble walk to the unblemished porch, and resentfully lifted the small, artful knocker. He stiffened his legs in determination as the door opened almost a minute later, and closed his eyes to steel himself.
When he opened his eyes, she was there.
He thought his heart would fail him. Her face was the manifestation of beauty, the pinnacle of loveliness. It was all the perfection of her new home without the snobbish frigidity. Shaking, he touched her face with cold fingers.
Her hair shone, cut to half the length he remembered it, and greying at the roots, still lusciously soft. Her face sagged, crinkled at the corners, but her eyes were still the darkest, deepest blue, and her lips felt the same on his. Though all the time in the world had passed, he breached it in half a second, brushed it away with a touch of his fingertips.
“Drei,” he sobbed, sagging against her, his tears glistening in her hair. This was too much, the essence of his being returning to him in an unbearable dose, like too much rain after centuries of drought.
She spoke then, and he thought he would truly die for the succulence of her voice. “Eminar.”
His name! Even though it wasn’t his real name, it was a name that carried so many memories of her calling to him. But on her lips it was more than a name. It was a melodic song, a heartbreaking poem.
“Eminar,” she said again, and his eyes brimmed over with more tears. She ran her delicate fingers through his hair, a pleasure that made him dizzy with its poignancy.
A sharp pain pulled him toward the surface of the waters of bliss. Pain? There was no pain here, everything was beautiful and pure. But something dug into his chest. Sleepily, he opened his eyes, took in her face again. Something was wrong. She looked almost…angry. Angry with him.
“Eminar,” she hissed again, pushing on him with one hand and pulling on his hair with the other. “Get off me!”
The feeling of death was bleak. Suffocating and harsh and welcome.
She didn’t want him.
He stepped back, and his soul was wrenched from him again, left with her. He looked at her emptily. This was worse than death. She was terrified. Terrified of him.
“Drei?” he whispered, almost whimpered, taking another step back.
“Eminar, I…” For a moment she looked torn. Trembling, she peered around him, wild eyes wide with desperation and shock. Her hand gripped the doorframe, her face drained of colour. “What are you doing here?”
He didn’t know. Why was he here? A mission of self-destruction. “It doesn’t matter anymore.” He said flatly. The Voices could have whatever they wanted. He was done here. They had taken his Dreisda from him.
He turned to leave as she sprang from the threshold and grabbed his arm with both hands. “Wait!” she nearly screamed. She looked surprised at her outburst, and cleared her throat. “It’s just…you surprised me.”
Uncertain now, he tried to pull away, but she held on tighter.
“Don’t go.” She swallowed, still looking as though she were about to faint. “Please.”
A moment morphed into eternity as he took her in. Here she was, at last. The enormity of the realization paralyzed him. This must be a dream. Tentatively, keeping his eyes locked on hers, he held out his other arm, and she stepped into him. She choked a heavy sigh as she leaned her head against his heart. They shook each other with sobs and soaked each other with tears. What more could they do? They stayed until a voice broke through their façade.
Drei stiffened, something like a shriek coming from her. Abruptly she pushed Shaethan away and whirled on the child standing on the stoop, watching them.
“Tassin!” she snapped, and the boy flinched. She softened her voice. “I thought you were doing your lessons with Merov!”
He puckered his lip. “We got hungry. She said I could have some lunch.”
Drei dropped her head in her hands. Taking a deep breath. “I suppose Eminar…your brother…left for the palace again? And where’s your father?” she asked hoarsely.
The boy shuffled his feet. “He told me to come find you. Who’s he?” The boy’s eyes shifted to Shaethan, whose stomach was sinking. He was about eight years old. He had Chimley’s dark hair and impish face, but foreign, light grey eyes. Mother…? Eminar…your brother…your father… Shaethan turned the words over in his mind like he might turn over a dead animal he found in the forest. From up the path leading to the castle, a girl of about twelve came skipping, swinging her arms around a bright blue dress.
“Mother!” she called, that word again, her lovely face breaking into a smile. “We have a visitor? Hello!”
“Dulena.” Drei sighed. The girl took Drei’s hand and continued to smile at Shaethan.
“Hello!” she said again.
“What’s your name?”
Done with the conversation, he looked beseechingly at Drei. He noticed for the first time what she wore. Her favorite blue evening gown, the same colour as Dulena’s, and matching shoes. And a necklace strung with pearls and gems, a piece that was as uniform and extravagant as the house she lived in, one she could never have afforded as a hotel maid. His sweetest dream had turned sour and bitter with the poison of his recurring nightmares. One where Drei was gone in a way that he would never get her back. Feeling sick, he shot out a hand to flick her hair away from her left ear. There, shining spitefully, was the polished opal, encased in a hair-thin prison of silver curlicues. Knowing it would burn him but wanting to make sure this nightmare was real, he brushed his fingers against it. Hissing, he pulled away, in time to see a third figure appear on the stoop. A man with medium brown hair, a crisp shirt and trousers. And a matching earing in his right ear, except with golden curlicues.
Though long closed over, the hole where Shaethan’s own matrimonial ginao had been stung his ear.
The man did not look friendly. “Dreisda. Who’s your friend?”
Drei dropped a curtsy, her face red. “Ethravaim. This is Shaethan. I…told you about him.”
Ethravaim looked only slightly interested, he continued to stare at Drei with cold eyes, like a thick sheet of ice not quite concealing a pool of lava. “How could you, Dreisda? Why is he here? I thought you hated him.”
Crack. Another piece of Shaethan’s heart.
“I don’t know why he’s here.” She didn’t refute the claim, and her eyes became harder. “Would you like to come in, Shaethan? There is much to talk about, I think. First of all, where is Reth?”
“He’s not coming in here! Where are the guards? I want him out!”
“I…” Where were his words? He couldn’t help staring at Drei’s new husband. Ethravaim. He wore a ring imprinted with a flame, the royal seal of Wespiser, and he had the same airs as his house. Though Shaethan agonized over what he had done to Drei every minute, at least he had remained faithful to her. He never thought of any other woman except her. Did their promises mean nothing to her now? Dimly, he realized that Drei and Ethravaim were arguing in tight voices, Drei’s hand locked in her daughter’s, her husband gripping their son’s shoulder. He looked away. “Yes, I would like to come in.” Drei shot the man a superior look.
The inside of the house made him as sick as the outside did. Drei led him to a spacious dining room – one of three, Ethravaim coolly informed him – and they sat at an elaborate table. The children ran around, getting them drinks and food and ogling Shaethan curiously. He refused to look at them, or say a word. This was wrong. It was all wrong.
He had never truly given the fearful nightmares consideration. He had thought she loved him as much as he loved her. He would rather have never seen her again, comfortably entertaining fantasies, than be stuck in the middle of this.
At last, Drei summoned the childminder and the imps were ushered away, leaving the three unhappy adults in the room. It suddenly felt smaller, the walls closing in around Shaethan, his vision narrowing to Ethravaim and Drei at the other end of the table. Facing off against him.
“Why don’t you begin, Drei. It seems you have more to tell than I. A more interesting story, in any case.” He tried to conceal his emotions with his sarcasm.
“No. Tell me how Rethemead is. Now.” That hard gaze again, trying to pry the truth out of him. Fighting back her tears. Even one was enough to drown him.
He stared at her, and at her new husband, and then bombarded them with every thought about Chimley he could find. Excluding ones involving spiders.
They blinked in shock, uniform expressions, matching surprise. Ethravaim’s eyes darted to the lump under Shaethan’s shirt, and then he jumped to his feet and slammed his hand against the table. “He’s one of them?” he shouted at Drei, who was still lost in the memories of her son. “You never told me that!” He strode over to Shaethan, who stood as well, nervous but prepared for a fight. They sized each other up. Shaethan was taller but Ethravaim had a quick look about him, the sharp, calculating, cool eyes of a seasoned street fighter. So he hadn’t always lived such a lavish life. He also had a younger body, though in reality he was probably a little older than Shaethan. Staring into those light grey eyes, Shaethan very deliberately reclaimed his seat.
“Sit down, Ethravaim,” Drei said quietly. Her face was still pale.
“But Drei,” he nearly whined, amusing Shaethan. “He could be a spy! You never told me he came from that place.”
“Despartus?” Shaethan said innocently, enjoying the other man’s expressive cringe. “Yes, I have come from Despartus. Have you visited? Despartus is beautiful this time of year.”
“Do you know who I am, peasant? I am the Chief Advisor to the King, and Chair of the War Council against that place.” He couldn’t seem to say the name. “You came to the wrong kingdom, spy, because soon we will rise up against you, stronger in numbers…”
Shaethan tuned out the other man’s dreary talk. His eyes fell upon a stack of letters on an end table beside the dining room door. His eyes were sharp enough at the moment to make out the names: Ethravaim Kucein, Dreisda Kucein. He turned back to the man.
“Ethravaim Kucein?” Shaethan asked suddenly, as though just realizing something. Even if Drei had left him, he still had Chimley, and those monsters had swept the throne right from under him. “I never expected to find you here!”
Ethravaim jerked out of his ramble. “Find me? Why?”
Shaethan smiled, and at once he was twenty-seven, thrilled by a coronation storm. “I’ve come to join the War Council.”
Go to Wespiser. Find Drei. Start the war.