O'lum met them at the lift. She wished Lorn a good night, indicating with a sniff and a wave of her hand in front of her face that it was time for Sh’ra to head toward the bath. There was a sharp pull at Sh’ra’s insides as he left, like what it must feel like to be the safety hook catching the full weight of a climber in free fall. She did not want him to go. But he did not turn back or give her a second glance. He strode confident into the night. Her gut twisted. She was alone. Again. And even he, who had lost the one most important to him, could not understand it. O’lum slipped an arm through hers and guided her toward the baths.
She had thought for a moment she had found someone else carrying a secret, someone else who needed to hide part of themselves away for no one else to see. No, it was just her. She was the only one. Lorn was hiding nothing. He walked as himself through his city, surrounded by those who knew and loved him. All who met him knew the pain he carried, and helped him to carry it. For her, there was no one. Except O'lum. And she found the woman little comfort. If anything, O’lum knowing added to her anxiety.
Once he was out of ear shot, O'lum spoke.
"You should tell him."
"Tell him? Tell him what?"
"About the stone."
"Why would I do that?"
They were at the door to the baths and paused their conversation until they were in private again. Once she was under the water, Sh'ra did not want to talk. She wanted to close her eyes, to relax and let the water work it's magic on her tired body, to descend and disappear. Her mind refused to calm. It raced, sprinting from one worry to the next, her throat tightening with each progression.
"Why do you think they made him go through the initiate training again?"
Sh’ra sat forward, pressing the palms of her hands into her eyes.
"He said it was as a punishment, for losing his temper during his mission."
"What do you think?"
"Why shouldn't I believe him?"
"I'm not implying that he is lying. But what if he does not know the truth? Or is not willing to admit it to himself?"
Sh'ra gripped her head tightly with her fingers before pulling them down quickly over her face, groaning out a breath through her nose.
"Why play these games with me? Why not just tell me?"
"I'm trying to prepare you girl!" Flecks of anger peppered O’lum’s words. Then she took a breath and continued in more even tone. "Think Sh'ra. Given what happened on Lorn's first mission, why would the elders put him back in the training."
Sh'ra took her own deep breath, shoving her anger to the side, putting on her best thinking face.
"They want to keep him busy, so his grief does not overtake him."
"Good. What else?"
"They want the other initiates to train with him and learn from him."
"Also correct." Her tone indicated that was not all.
Sh'ra could not think of any other reasons. She groped through the back of her dull mind, finding... something.
O'lum chuckled. "Ah, so you have it."
"You cannot be serious."
"Oh, I am."
"Poor Lorn. Is that why he calls it a punishment?"
She asked the question mostly to herself. She already knew the answer. She thought of what she would do. The activity would be nice, the grueling work, keeping her mind off of... strange. It was not Shin who sprung into her thoughts. It was U'ri.
"It must be you Sh'ra."
"What?" Her sluggish mind did not fully catch the question.
"He must choose you."
She caught it that time and tt was her turn to chuckle.
"I don't think I'm his type."
"What does that have to do with it? You need him. And he needs you."
Sh’ra’s mind was thick, but something kept sticking, kept leaping to the surface of the turmoil. She caught glimpses of it, then it would be pulled beneath the surface again before she could see it clearly. Finally, it was clear. Her breath caught, her eyes shot wide, her heart pounding in her chest. She covered her face with her hands. All exhaustion gone.
“O’lum. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you what my child?”
“That he…” Sh’ra paused, realizing she did not even know his name. ”Lorn’s betrothed… he… he was your son.” It came out as barely a whisper. The tightening of O’lum’s face around her eyes was all the confirmation Sh’ra needed.
She continue to lay in bed after waking the next morning. A weight sat on her chest, pressing her into the mattress. Unable to move, her mind raced in circles around thoughts that she could not drown. A single one bobbing up, again and again.
Shin killed their son. Shin killed their son.
It did not matter that he was trying to kill her, or frighten her from the tree. They were not their to kill her, she had learned. They had been sent to kill another of the contestants, it did not matter which, and frame her for the murder. O'lum's son had seized on the opportunity of Teth stalking her through the grass. He had not expected Shin to be nearby as well.
Shin killed her son.
And yet, they had welcomed her, O'lum at least knowing the truth of the situation. Hey'at likely also knew. It was unclear from the conversation last night how much O'lum shared with Hey'at.
Sh'ra raised both hands to her face. She wanted to scream, but bit hard on the sheets instead, not wanting to disturb her neighbors. She did not even know his name. No one spoke it. Not even O'lum, not even death.
Why did it bother her to not know his name? She needed to get up, to dress, to ready herself for the day of training. The weight refused to move. Hey'at would be there at any moment. Or Le'un. Her knuckles went whiter as she clutched the sheets more tightly, the mix of emotions paralyzing her. It was too much. Too much.
She rolled to her side, away from the door, bringing her knees up to her chest. The terrible thought she was hiding from, pushed its way to the surface. Its gasp of air, pulling the breath from her lungs.
This is all your fault.
She curled herself tighter, wrapping her arms around her legs and pulling them into her chest until her knees and hips burned from the strain. She sank beneath the tumult pummeling her from every side. She sank and sank.
"Where are you, daughter?"
She covered her ears to block out the new voice in the cacophony. Only the soft pressure of a hand laid on her shoulder, brought her eyes open.
The Goddess knelt beside the bed, head level with her own. Concern filled her eyes.
"Daughter, I see your pain. Come back from this place."
"I... I don't know how Mother." Sh'ra choked out. "I don't know how to... how to keep going."
Lo'rah squeezed her shoulder, then moved her hand to cup Sh'ra's cheek, wiping away the streaks left by falling tears. The sensation on her cheek, emanated slowly through her body. As she followed it, feeling first the touch on her skin, it gradually pushed out all thought. Her mind slowed its incessant spin. The chills racing up and down her legs and arms lessened. She breathed in deeply, holding the breath until her lungs burned. Her thoughts still swirled and warred with one another, but she was no longer among them. She was outside now, watching them in their turmoil.
Embarrassment poured through her.
"I'm sorry Mother. I... you must think me a foolish little girl."
The Goddess leaned forward, kissing her brow.
"You are no fool daughter." She whispered. Then stood, moving to the end of the bed. She rummaged through the chest, searching for something.
"But you might want to get dressed. Lorn is on his way up in the lift now."
Sh'ra groaned, throwing back the sheet. Lo'rah placed a new set of clothes beside her on the bed.
"Where is the stone?" Lorah asked, her tone casual, but the pitch slightly too high. Sh'ra sensed something behind the question, some underlying anxiety. Sh'ra turned to watch her face as she answered.
“It is here." Indicating her hiding place in the bed frame.
The rigidness in Lo'rah's posture relaxed.
"Good. You must keep it safe Sh'ra."
"I will Goddess." She heard a creak on the wooden planks outside and turned toward the door. "How can I face him? How can I face him knowing what I have done to him?"
"What have you done daughter?"
Sh'ra clenched her fist, digging her nails into her palm, thinking of all she had done, frustrated that the Goddess would ask her such a question. Did she not already know? She forced the anger down, before facing Lo'rah. Only, she could not find her. The Goddess was gone. The question reverberated in her mind as a knock struck the door. What have you done? She heard it as clearly as if it were spoken by someone in the room, with a heavy emphasis on the word "you." Yet, she also knew somehow that no one else would have heard it, even had they stood intimately close.
She opened the door. Lorn stood outside, his face breaking into a smile as he saw her.
"Good morning, Sh'ra. Uncle asked me to come for you this morning."
Shame pushed at her. Hey'at must have learned the truth. He must know now and so he did not want to see her. The Goddess' question pushed back. What had she done? She was the not the one who killed their son. She did not ask Shin to do it. He did it on his own.
It was true, but it did not sit comfortably. If she had not insisted on entering the trials, Shin would not have been there to defend her. The Air clan would never have been hired to frame her. She shared her thoughts with Lorn as the lift descended.
“You are not to blame in this, Sh’ra. And he would not have wanted you blame yourself. Who does this guilt serve? No one here blames you.”
He said with a sweep of his arm across the homes on the cliffside.
“Not even Hey’at and O’lum?”
“Them least of all.”
“It’s just… it’s hard for me to believe they would welcome me, that they would truly want me to be here when I… He died right in front of me. And… and Shin would never have been there without me.”
She turned away from him as she said it, not wanting to see the pain she knew his eyes would hold.
“I know these thoughts Sh’ra. In the weeks after my return, they almost killed me.” He placed a hand on her shoulder. “You are not to blame. He made his own choices. Our fate is decided before our birth.”
She nodded, wanting to believe. She placed her own hand on top of his, leaning into him as the lift came to rest on the ground. They walked in a comfortable silence through the city, her body lighter, her spirit almost exuberant. Outside the gates, a small blue flower grew among the jagged rocks beside the path. She stooped to watch it twist open as the first rays of the sun lit upon its leaves. She thought to pick it, but stopped herself at cupping the head between her fingers.
“Why do you not speak his name?”
“We do not name those who have gone. To name them is to seek to call them back, and that is something we cannot do. I know his name. Most in this city know it, but it will never be spoken again. Wherever he has gone, I do not want him pulled back here. I want him to be there.”
“How could saying his name call him back?”
“It is what we believe.” He replied with a shrug.
He continued walking. She withdrew her hand from the flower and stood, watching the slow confidence in his steps. The unasked and unanswered question settled in the back of her mind. She knew what she needed to do. It surprised her to find it was even what she wanted. Taking another moment, she released her thoughts, breathing in the crisp morning air, feeling it deep within her lungs. Holding it for a moment, and then breathing it out. As the last of it left her body, she was ready. Stepping back onto the path, she ran to catch up with him.