"Don't touch me."
"Where are you going?"
"What's it to you?"
The headache from which Syrenne was suffering that morning was abnormally painful. She felt grateful that she could tell anyone who asked that she was hung-over when in reality, she had been perfectly sober the night before. She remembered everything with unwanted clarity, and the headache that remained was a result of her practically sleepless night. She had woken up countless times from the nightmares, and what little sleep she did get was restless. Syrenne sat at the bar at Ariela's tavern that morning and ordered a quick breakfast—she wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. She could feel Mirania's eyes on her as she shoveled the eggs down her throat. She avoided her gaze. Unfortunately for Syrenne, Mirania took the initiative and approached her, wiping remains of an undoubtedly large breakfast from her delicate lips.
"Good morning, Syrenne."
"How are you feeling? Any better?"
"That wasn't very convincing." Mirania chuckled and took a seat beside her friend. Syrenne swallowed the last bit of her breakfast and left a few coins on the counter.
"I'm fine, all right?" she urged. "I don't know why you have to be up my arse all the time."
"Just trying to be helpful, I suppose," Mirania replied, never losing her sweet comportment.
"Well I don't need help, okay?"
Syrenne stood up and, feeling somewhat guilty for treating Mirania with such blatant contempt, made her way toward the door. Yurick was standing at the entrance with his back against the wall, as he usual was, and straightened up at her approach.
"Syrenne! Hey, I was wondering—"
"What is it, Patchy?"
"Whoa...everything okay?" he asked. Syrenne hadn't meant to sound so aggravated in her response, and cursed herself for the mistake.
"Yeah, yeah, everything's just fine. What do you want?"
"I just wanted to know if maybe you'd want to go to the arena later. I know you enjoy the fights, and I could use the practice," he explained. He seemed a bit more subdued after her outburst and returned to his position against the wall.
"Yeah, sure, why not," she replied absentmindedly.
"I'll be hanging around there all day, so just come by when you're ready."
She figured that sometime during the day she would find herself stumbling across the arena, so she agreed. Yurick smiled at her, but it was the type of smile that seemed sympathetic. Syrenne didn't want sympathy. She walked past him and out the front doors before he or anybody else had the chance to say anything more. The sunlight that greeted her was surprising and unwelcome, and she shielded her eyes from the unexpected brightness. In her attempts to make her way to the street while hiding from the rays of light, she felt a harsh bump on her shoulder. She whirled around to confront the culprit, and was abruptly face to face with a true criminal.
Of course it had to be Lowell.
"Don't touch me."
"Where are you going?"
"What's it to you?"
She sauntered off as quickly and as confidently as she could, denying herself the tempting opportunity to look back. Her arm tingled where it had made contact with his, and she unknowingly began rubbing it at the call of a baseless desire to feel it once more. The ground beneath her feet seemed to be moving at a breakneck pace; she felt as if she were flying over the cobblestones to a place that only her movements recognized. In her head, Syrenne was going nowhere. She was wandering, inadvertently bumping into the people on the streets, and letting her feet take her wherever it was they wanted to go. The only goal that flashed in her mind was "away." Away from the tavern, away from them, away from him. She trusted in her feet to take her somewhere far away.
Before Syrenne could realize where she was going and come to her senses enough to stop and run the other way, she was standing in front of Dagran's grave. As soon as her eyes fell upon it the tears began welling, despite her vehement protests that they stay away. The area was deserted except for her, and though she tried to turn around and walk away, she stepped closer instead. Perhaps since nobody was around, it was okay for her to cry. Perhaps she could let herself slip this one time, but only because she was alone...
Throwing her swords to the ground, Syrenne sat in front of the grave and stared at it, completely motionless. The sunlight that fell upon it was, in her opinion, inappropriate. There was nothing there on which to shine, except for perhaps the few times that Dagran had made her smile. A little voice inside of her head cried, "But Syrenne, he was one of your best friends. He did so much for you, he saved your life...he gave you a life." And yet, in the face of all of the darkness he had caused and the shadow he had allowed to overcome his soul, the smiles seemed meaningless. As the tears began streaming, Syrenne looked up at the sun and scowled at it.
"Go away, why don't ya? You don't belong here."
"Who are you talking to, Syrenne?"
Hastily, she wiped the tears from her cheeks and bit her lower lip to keep the rest of them at bay on the verge of her eyelids. She grabbed the nearest sword and ran her fingertip along the sharp edge. Then she cringed, because she recalled the circumstances in which she had acquired the sword.
Zael sat down beside her on the dewy grass with that beautiful little smile on his face, the one that never seemed to go away. But she could see in the sunlight that there were tears in his eyes, too.
"So, you had the same idea as me, I suppose?" he said.
"Yeah, I guess..."
"I don't know why, but it seems as if I can't go a day without coming to visit him. He was always by my side, so I wanna be by his, you know?"
"I understand," Syrenne sighed. She couldn't bear to look at him, so innocent and content. "There's a battle in my head, though."
"A battle? What do you mean?"
Syrenne couldn't stop the tear that slipped out.
"One voice tells me he was a no good traitor and I should just forget about 'im." She paused, trying to recollect her composure before it broke down completely. "And the other tells me he was my friend, practically my savior."
"I know it's hard. But I like to think of him in a good light," Zael smiled again. She couldn't look at that smile, not without the possibility of flooding the dam. "Someone told me that it's nicer to think that if it weren't for him, we wouldn't be alive."
"Who told you that?"
The tears and their desire to flow grew stronger, so Syrenne turned her face away from him and toward the grave. She tried with every ounce of power in her body to ignore what Zael had just said, but the words had been permanently imprinted in her mind.
His eyes, so comforting and welcoming and friendly, were forcefully starting to draw the words from her mouth.
"What is it, Syrenne?"
She suddenly forgot why it was she was crying. She forgot which emotions she was supposed to be feeling, which memories she was supposed to be seeing, which questions she was supposed to be asking. Was it about Dagran? About Lowell? About this painful fire inside of her heart that grew more ferocious with every passing moment? About the fact that each time she blinked she saw his pale and dead face in front of her, his closed eyes and the cold hands she had held in her own, saying, "I love you"? About the woman in her bed who kept reappearing to taunt the living hell out of her? About standing in front of the mirror, naked and vulnerable, asking herself if she was good enough? Everything became chaos inside of Syrenne's head. And then, out of the confusion and out from among the shadows, one lovely phrase made its way to the surface and echoed.
Can't let any harm come to a beautiful girl like you...
Syrenne tried to push it aside, push it away from the sunlight, just as she wanted to do with Dagran's grave. Why was she even upset? He had finally given her a reason to forget about the whirlwind of emotions into which they had both been sucked. He had done something that said to her, "It's not meant to be." She reprimanded herself for not jumping for joy. And even as she did so, the tears became as waterfalls against her skin.
"Zael, let's go to the arena."
"Erm...okay, I suppose we could. Calista and I are—"
"It won't be long. Don't worry about your little wifey now, all right? Patchy is going to meet us there and we're gonna have a ball." She forced the energy into her voice and into her actions as she grabbed her swords and stood up. Her eyes fell upon Dagran's grave one last time before she turned her back to it. But she could still feel the sunlight.
Zael stood up as well and followed her back into the town, where they silently made their way toward the arena. She glanced at him through the corner of her eye and could see him watching her with caring curiosity. She forbade thoughts of telling him what was on her mind, because doing so would make her even more vulnerable than she already was. Vulnerability was a word she detested, but what she detested even more was the fact that she was applying it to her own—oddly sober—state of mind. For a moment she considered stopping Zael, telling him that she only wanted to go drink, but she let herself move forward. A battle alongside two of her best friends might do her good.
"Hey, you showed up! And you brought Zael!" Yurick called.
He was standing in front of the entrance to the arena, waving them over. Syrenne flashed Zael the most realistic smile she could and walked over to where Yurick awaited them. As she drew closer, however, her heart sank and fell to pieces in the pit of her stomach. Lowell was standing there as well, crossing his arms in that condescending position of his. A conflict arose once more in her heart. The passions that were fighting for dominance. Hatred against love. Dismay against relief. Happiness against sadness. None seemed to claim victory.
"How are you guys?" Zael greeted.
A conversation began among the three of them while Syrenne tried her hardest to avoid Lowell's eyes. She could sense them on her, even when she turned her back. They were there, searing straight through her flesh and into the very core of her being.
Either that, she thought, or he was once again conjuring the image of her body standing naked before him.
"Syrenne, you're awfully quiet," Yurick said. "That's not like you."
"I'm sick of talkin', ya numpties," she said. "Let's get on with the fightin'!"
Then Syrenne made the mistake of looking at Lowell. And she knew, from the instant she looked into those icy blue eyes, that there was something hidden behind his crooked smile. That very smile was making her sick to her stomach in that she never wanted to look away. She could've stood there all day, without saying a word, and just stared at that charming smile of his. No matter how many times she tried to remind herself that there were other women he had blessed, willingly, with that smile, she was still absolutely held in its power. Syrenne contorted her face into an icy glare, a way of telling him that she was not to be tricked...but at the same time, she wasn't sure if he was trying to trick her at all.
"All right then," Lowell finally proclaimed. "Into the fray we go!"
Side by side, the four of them marched through the doors.
Syrenne was too slow; she couldn't protest when she felt Lowell's fingers grasp hers and, for a single moment that passed too quickly, squeezed as hard as he could. As soon as he let go, discreet and subtle and without even acknowledging what he had done, one word crossed Syrenne's mind...a word that she wanted to suddenly erase from her vocabulary.