"No. Not yet."

Deilia Rys'tihn felt her shoulders sag with the weight of the decision she had just made. She tried to keep her voice as confident as she could, but it was more for her own sake than for the woman on the other end of the transmission. At least her friend couldn't see the resignation on her face she was certain she hadn't corrected.

"...are you sure?"

She set her jaw, releasing a slow breath to reassure herself that she was. "Yes, I'm sure. There's something else that I still have to do. I need the time."

"Deilia...this is the only window I can offer you right now. I won't be able to do this again for five years...maybe more. Are you okay with that?"

I have to be. "This is important, and there's no other way I can do it. I appreciate what you're willing to do for me, but at this moment, I'll have to decline."

There was a long silence from the other side, and Deilia suspected her friend was desperately attempting to guess what her new mission was. She wasn't about to explain, though, and thankfully the other didn't ask.

"Very well. I wish there was more I could do, but...you understand."

She barely managed to withhold a sigh. "I do. Thank you."

"Take care, Deilia, and good luck on your...endeavor."

As the transmission light faded, Deilia smiled wanly to herself. She had been given the same farewell the last time the two of them had talked, which had been more than four years ago. As difficult as her departure had been back then, leaving her home, her duty, and her son, the choice to prolong her return to Paneau had been even harder to stomach. She wanted nothing more than to swim in the cool, tranquil waters of the Lexcen Lake, or climb and crawl her way through the maze-like cave she and her uncle called home below the lake... But she had learned a long time ago that the job she shouldered as a Rys'tihn Ghost Heir far outweighed her own interests. Throughout her life, she had given immeasurable sacrifices again and again to protect the Legacy of Paneau...and she knew it would require even more of her to bring this one particular Prophecy to fruition...

Drawn out of her thoughts as she sensed another presence behind her, Deilia turned from her console to see her nineteen-year-old cousin, Garran. He was motionless and mostly expressionless, but the saddened, repentant look in his eyes told her just how long he had been standing there.

"I'm sorry," he breathed weakly as he cast his gaze to the floor. "I shouldn't have been listening."

But Deilia only gave him a small smile and shook her head. "It's alright. It's about time I told you, anyway." She had taken another breath to begin her explanation, but Garran spoke up before she had even decided on her first word.

"You took your exile on purpose...didn't you? That's why you didn't want me to go with you."

Stunned, Deilia blinked. Only a handful of people had been told the truth about her exile, and she had been quite selective of who was to know. Overhearing her earlier conversation, he must have pieced it together himself. Impressed but trying not to show it, she released a slow sigh, gathering herself to answer.

"Yes, I left intentionally under the guise of an exile, but that's not why I didn't want you to come." To meet his gaze more squarely, she stood from her seat, though she still didn't stand even with him; her meek, lanky cousin now easily towered a head over her.

"The choice to leave was mine, for very specific personal reasons, and I didn't want you to feel like you were...obligated to me, that you didn't have a choice, too. But you made it pretty clear how you felt, so I gave in, and here we are, a year and a half later."

He thoughtfully considered all she had said for a moment before he responded. "You told that woman that you have something else to do. So what was your first...'endeavor'?"

Her lips thinned into a tight line. "To get better."

Garran had seen her before and after her disease had taken its toll, but she had never told him just how much she had suffered in the interim...

"I knew how sick I was going to become. I also knew that Paneau's doctors wouldn't have the resources to cure me before it took a turn for the worse. That's why I left, so I could get the help I needed without worrying or burdening my family. When I couldn't find the doctor I was looking for...I was able to find you instead."

Though she gave him an affectionate smile, remembering their first meeting years ago, it didn't last long. He continued, sharper than she had ever realized, sharper than she wanted. "And then you sent me away to Paneau, so I wouldn't have to watch while you..."

Her heart ached for him as he understood what she had saved him from. "After what you had just been through, with your mother," she nodded carefully, agreeing with what he couldn't say, "...I couldn't put you through that again. I got better, and you got to experience the life you should've had, with a little bit extra...excitement I wasn't expecting."

Garran had very nearly sacrificed himself to protect his cousins, Koril and Elena's children who were locked in the crosshairs of a dangerous mercenary a year and a half prior. He had done so willingly, and after his recovery, he had demanded to leave with her, refusing to let her suffer exile alone. Now that he knew she had chosen it, as his mother had similarly chosen exile in his father's place, would he want to return to Paneau?

"So, what now?" he continued, watching her closely. "You could have taken that woman's offer to go home, but you didn't. You have another mission?"

She nodded after a moment, reluctant to share if he intended to go back to Paneau instead. "There's someone I have to find. But, understandably, he doesn't want to be found."

His curiosity piqued, Garran arched his eyebrows. "So how are we going to find him?"

Only just able to control a broad smile from spreading across her face, she shrugged casually as she returned to her console to continue her research.

"I have a few ideas."