Lytha knew that regrowing seared flesh hurt, yet still didn’t feel prepared when she had to go through it herself. She spent weeks waking up in agony, feeling as though tiny insects crawled inside her skin as her potions did their work. J Until she woke up cringing multiple nights in a row, she hadn’t realize that a part of her had always wrongly considered Garyl weak for the way he had carried on when she regrew his tongue.
But that was years ago. Her skin had acquired some new sags and wrinkles with the passage of time, but otherwise felt as smooth and unblemished as it ever had.
She saw Garyl on campus from time to time, but they rarely spoke anymore. His sword and shield were gone, replaced with a polished yew staff that seemed to serve more as a walking stick than a weapon. He appeared on campus intermittently, often lingering near the site of the old hedge maze, which Lytha had long since replaced with a flower garden.
“Mister Amastacia,” she called to her assistant one day while observing Garyl from her office window. “Do you see the fellow in the black down there?”
The young blond man approached the window and fidgeted nervously as he saw the person Lytha was pointing to. “Yes,” he said haltingly. “I…we thought you had given permission for him to be here. If he should be removed—”
“No, he has my permission,” Lytha interrupted. “But please let him know that I would like to see him in my office before he leaves today.”
Within the hour, Garyl rapped on Lytha’s office door with his walking stick.
“Come in,” Lytha beckoned.
The wanderer entered and immediately propped his walking stick against the wall. His face wore a blank expression, unable to determine whether he should be happy or sad to be speaking with Lytha again. He did indulge in a faint smile when he saw that the headmistress had moved to the sitting area of the office and prepared some tea and biscuits for them.
“I don’t really drink tea,” Garyl said.
“Then you can either choose to indulge in my hospitality or you can insult me by refusing my generosity,” Lytha said sternly.
Garyl sat on the sofa next to Lytha and poured himself a cup.
“It’s been six years since we last had a chance to speak privately,” the headmistress stated. “I see that you returned to Lorinth, which I assume means that Tiane no longer poses a threat.”
Garyl sipped his tea and grimaced at the bitter taste. “Is that what your seers and spies tell you?”
“Every graduate from this academy whom I have asked a favor of has reported the same thing: a schism runs through the Crimson Claw and there has been no sign of Derrezen’s reemergence. I had assumed that you had done what I thought to be necessary and that you didn’t want to speak with me because you were mad at me for being right.”
“That does seem to be a very…you…assumption to make.”
Lytha nodded curtly. “But recently I received a package that leaves me somewhat concerned.”
She stood up and crossed the room, heading toward her desk. Bending over, she removed a large cloth bundle that she had hidden behind the oaken furniture. She brought that across the room and set it next to Garyl on the sofa, moving to a small settee on the other side of the table.
“Who sent it?” Garyl asked.
“Anonymous,” Lytha replied.
Slowly and carefully, Garyl unwrapped the package. “I see you already opened this and then retied the string,” he said as he began.
“I needed to make sure that it posed no threat to the academy.”
“And yet then you wrapped it up again in order to present to me.”
Lytha grinned. “I do love a little bit of melodrama.”
She could tell that Garyl figured out the contents before he had fully unwrapped them. At the same time, his expression of surprise when he did finally figure it out told her something she needed to know: he hadn’t expected the parcel to be delivered to him here.
Garyl’s old sword and shield lay inside the large parcel. The sword had a brand new black leather scabbard, and the shield had been polished so brightly that the silver boss shined in the sunlight coming through the window. Garyl’s expression wavered between happiness and sadness as he passed his hands over his old armaments.
“You want to know what it means,” he said.
Lytha nodded. “Did somebody want to return them as a gesture of kindness, or is it a message? Are you being told to prepare for battle?”
Garyl shrugged, then returned to his tea. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t have answers.”
“Not even if I ask you basic questions, such as what happened when you went after Tiane?”
“I didn’t kill her, if that’s what you want to know.” Garyl held his teacup with both hands and stared into the half-filled cup as though it contained some sort of hidden answer. “I tried to talk to her honestly. I should get more used to leading with that, instead of trying to make sure I have all the answers before I speak. It’s much easier to admit how little I really know.”
“And how did your approach work out?”
Garyl shrugged, finished his tea, and set the cup in front of him. “I don’t know…I really don’t. I haven’t seen troop movements up north, but I also haven’t seen Tiane back at the academy.”
“So after all this, you don’t really know whether she’s an ordinary woman or the next coming of Derrezen?”
“She’s definitely not the former,” Garyl said, standing and collecting his gear. “If she turns out to be the latter, we might not know for years to come. My only goal is to make sure that she’s somewhere in between.”
“In between could still leave hundreds of people dead,” Lytha said.
Garyl inspected his shield, front and back, then frowned. “Okay, maybe I’m not looking for an even split. But if she’s got a little bit of bad and enough good to balance it all out, wouldn’t that be something? Maybe she wakes up in a rage and wants to kill somebody, but she only throws rocks into the ocean instead. If she can hold onto one thing that’s beautiful in this world and it stops her from doing something destructive, maybe we can call that a win.”
“And what are you doing to make sure that she doesn’t veer toward the dragon inside her?”
Garyl inspected the scabbard, drew the sword partway out, and grunted in satisfaction. “I made my case,” he said. “I think maybe I made it badly, but it’s out there now. I can’t do anything more than hope that she turns into the person I think she can become.”
“What does she have to do to convince you that she’s a threat?”
Garyl shrugged the shield onto his left shoulder and tucked the sword under his right arm. “I keep my eyes open,” he said. “I try to keep track of her and to guess at how she’s feeling. But I don’t have the power to control somebody else. Moreover, I won’t kill somebody just because I can’t control them. All I can do is hope that we all do the right thing.”
“And how does hope work out for you?” Lytha asked.
Garyl moved toward the door and grabbed his walking stick. “It works until it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, it’s just about the worst thing ever. But sometimes I don’t have a better solution. I keep looking for one, and I make my mistakes along the way. But being very old doesn’t give me some magical insight. It just gives me an opportunity to outlive my mistakes. Thank you for the tea, Lytha. I’ll try to pay you a visit more often if you would like.”
Lytha smiled. “Yes, I would like that.”
Garyl moved toward the door and then stopped. “You inspected these, yes?”
“And you didn’t notice anything unusual about them?”
“No,” Lytha said. “Should I have?”
Garyl gave Lytha a piercing stare, then broke into a wide smile. “No,” he said. “Thank you. You’re wonderful.”
Grass and weeds had grown over the earth where Falden’s shack once lay. At the moment, a campfire stood on the ruins of Tiane’s old bedroom. It burned low as evening set in, and Garyl recognized the lone woman sitting next to it.
“You did eventually learn how to start a fire,” he said. He approached the area without his walking stick and with his sword in its scabbard.
Tiane laughed before she stood up. She had grown tall as she entered adulthood, and now seemed to tower over Garyl. She wore breeches, boots, and a purple blouse. “Fires are easy,” she said. “I still have to work on the rest.” She sized Garyl up, then scanned the surrounding area to see if he had brought anybody with him. “I was wondering whether you would come alone or with an army.”
“Wondering, but not worried?”
“No,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about danger anymore. Those in the Crimson Claw who turned against me found that out.”
“So they did grow impatient,” Garyl said. “You’re still developing your abilities. I imagine the voice inside might also be getting restless.”
Tiane tapped her forehead. “A little bit. But I have time, don’t I? You talked to me like I was going to live forever. I could see what this world has to offer and then shape it as I desire.”
Garyl’s face grew grim. “I have no problem with the first part. As for the second…I’ll try to stop you.”
“I thought you said you couldn’t hurt me.”
“That doesn’t mean I won’t try.”
Tiane weighed Garyl’s words as though she were a judge hearing an argument in court. “My offer before still stands, but the way,” she said. “You figured out the symbol I sketched on the inside of your shield. You could have brought an army to deal with me. But time and time again, you’ve proven that you don’t want to hurt me.” She walked closer to Garyl and put her hands on his shoulders. “You can still teach me. Maybe we’ll both get what we want.”
Garyl pushed Tiane’s hands away and stepped back. “Is that what the Crimson Claw would like?”
“They’ve been through…a culling,” Tiane said. “The ones who remain are loyal to me. And those dissidents who still skulk about will either be dealt with or stay in hiding if they know what’s best for them.”
“So you haven’t grown tired of killing…you’re just focusing the violence on people who you think deserve it.”
“I don’t imagine that you have any objection to me fighting against their kind.”
“It’s all very easy when it comes to killing slavers or murderers,” Garyl said. “But when you get into the habit, it’s very easy to include others who aren’t as deserving. If I came here with my sword drawn, did you plan to kill me? I would pose as much a threat to you as they did.”
“Just as you won’t harm me, I won’t kill you,” Tiane said. “Unless…”
“Unless it comes down to me or you,” Garyl finished. “Because you still haven’t found something more important to you than your own life.”
“And you? I notice that you were very keen to take up arms again once I provided them.”
“I travel, and I learn,” Garyl said. “I try to keep up on what you’ve been doing, and that brings me to many dangerous places all on its own. Just because I don’t consider myself the center of the world doesn’t mean I’m not careful.”
“So the answer to my offer is still ‘no,’ then?”
Garyl nodded in confirmation.
“And now it’s time for us to part ways?” Tiane asked.
“Maybe,” Garyl said.
Garyl removed his shield from its place on his back and flipped it over to show the inside. Sketched on the wooden backing, right against the rim of the shield, Tiane had drawn an overturned boat.
“I noticed it on a cursory glance,” Garyl said. “You had it delivered to the academy. Did you really think Lytha wouldn’t look it over before giving it to me?”
“It doesn’t really matter, does it?” Tiane said. “She obviously didn’t find it, or she would have showed up here with an army of wizards trying to end me.”
“Maybe.” Garyl waved his arm in a circle around the area. “Maybe there’s a whole horde of invisible warriors just waiting to strike you down as soon as I step away from you.”
“But you don’t believe that.”
“Maybe Lytha trusted my judgment,” Garyl said. “And yours.”
Tiane smiled. “That would be a welcome change.”
“Or maybe she just happened to look at the calendar,” Garyl said. “And if she did, she would have noticed, just as I did, that tonight is the autumnal equinox. That means there will be a festival beneath the sea in just a few hours.”
Tiane’s smile grew wider. “We could see it, if somebody were to bring us there. But I don’t have the magic to do that.”
Garyl offered Tiane his hand. “Fortunately, that is a luxury I am willing to offer.”
Tiane took Garyl’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “Does this mean we can be friends?”
“Tiane, you and I will probably cross paths again and again for centuries to come. When you live that long, you don’t have friends and you don’t have enemies. You just have people who have always been there…and that’s a rare luxury.”
“So we’re going to keep fighting in the future?”
“Probably,” Garyl admitted. “But we don’t have to right now.”
Together, the two began to walk toward the sea.