Sheathing her sword, Trissiny bent and picked up the shard that last capling had just hurled at her. “Gabriel, you’re being ridiculous. How can you know what these creatures are thinking? There’s no way…”
“Here’s the thing about puzzles,” he said, still grinning. “You have to try things to work out the solution. It’s sort of a given, going in, that the first few things you try aren’t going to work.”
“Uh huh,” she said skeptically. “And if we lose pieces? We need these to open the thingy and get out of here.”
He shrugged, that infuriatingly placid smile not faltering. “We’ve got nothing to lose but time. We’re in an enclosed space, here; nothing’s leaving the room until we get the door open. Worst case scenario, we play some tag with the caplings and then have to try something else.”
She tilted her head back to stare plaintively at the ceiling.
“By the same logic,” Ariel pointed out, “you could try something else in the first place. This room is entirely filled with living biological matter, which your scythe can reduce to decomposed fragments.”
“I’m not murdering the caplings,” Gabriel said with a sigh. “Mass murder is not the solution, Ariel. Ever.”
“Just to be sure you have noticed, Tobias is not here.”
“Wow, is that not the point.”
“Well,” Trissiny mused aloud, “we could still just take the pieces from…” Her voice petered out as her eyes fell on the little mushroom-person who was still hopping up and down, emitting birdlike calls and waving its scrawny arms, and she physically flinched. “Oh, what the hell.”
The capling squealed in pure delight when she tossed the crystal shard in a gentle arc, hopping to intercept; in its eagerness, it hit the shard with its conical head, causing it to bounce away, but immediately on landing the fairy scrabbled after it, scooping up the glowing prize and vanishing around a tree trunk with a triumphant shriek.
The other two, likewise, dived away into the mushrooms and moss which constituted the underbrush, leaving the two of them alone by the door.
Trissiny turned and gave Gabriel her best, most pointed look. “Great. Well, now what?”
“Come on, I thought you said you’d played tag before,” he chided her. “It’s no fun if you just stand there.” He crept toward the trees on his toes, then suddenly lunged past the nearest trunk to duck his head around behind it. “Boo!”
Shrieking and yelping in delight, a capling burst out around the other side of the trunk and pelted a crystal shard at Gabriel’s back, where it bounced off his coat. Immediately, another one burst to life from a nearby stand of large mushrooms and skittered by, snatching it up and darting off along the wall emitting a series of whoops like a monkey. Gabriel, laughing, dashed after it.
“This is asinine,” Trissiny protested.
“I tend to agree,” Ariel’s voice replied from some distance away in the trees. “Keep in mind that this is clearly a fae-aligned room, and also a test of character administered by an automated construct devised by a goddess not noted for her excellent judgment where character is concerned. That it is clearly asinine does not necessarily mean anything is amiss.”
Her echoing voice seemed to waver and move as Gabriel traced a path through the trees ahead. Now he popped out again from behind a stump as tall as he was to give Trissiny a sardonic look. “Try not to have fun, Triss. I’d hate it if you started bleeding internally or something.”
“You are asinine,” she snapped.
“I love how you say that like you’re pointing out something we don’t all know,” he retorted cheerfully, then charged off in the direction of a scuffling sound.
Heaving another sigh, she strode reluctantly into the trees after him, muttering all the while. “I’m just saying, we don’t have to kill the little things. I bet a good scare would make them give up the…”
Something bounced off the back of her head and she whirled. A reddish capling with a flat, white-spotted mushroom cap made a noise that was too much like a laugh to be a coincidence and dived away into the shadows beneath a moss-laden branch.
Scowling, Trissiny bent and picked up the shard it had flung at her. “Playing tag with jagged pieces of crystal. Somebody doesn’t have to worry about vulnerable organs, I see. If the girls back at the Abbey had done something this foolish I’d’ve—”
The red and white capling poked its head out of the moss and made a rude noise at her.
“Oh, you little pest!” Trissiny surged after it, arm upraised to throw the shard, and it skittered away again, whooping. She ducked through the hanging moss and slid to a stop in the loam, looking around; there was no sign of her tormentor. However, while she was peering about for it, she caught another capling rising stealthily out of a waist-high stand of mushrooms, arm upraised and ready to throw another shard. Acting on reflex, Trissiny beaned it right on its cap with the shard in her hand. “Gotcha!”
It staggered out of the mushrooms, spun in a full circle on its heal, and flopped onto its back, letting the shard tumble free from its grip.
“Oh, Vesk would love you,” Trissiny said, ignoring a distant shout from Gabriel which was followed by a long crashing noise that sounded like a smaller tree being felled. She frowned, the capling continued to lie there, unmoving. Did they have vulnerable organs? Those crystals really did have sharp edges, and she realized with a measure of guilt that she’d thrown a lot harder than they had been so far. “Hey,” she said uncertainly, stepping forward. “Are you okay?”
The capling didn’t move, even when she nudged it with her boot. “Oh, no,” Trissiny muttered, kneeling to carefully prod at its cap with her fingertips, looking for a damaged spot where the piece might have hit. Her healing, never her strongest suit, was absolutely useless here; divine light was not at all healthy for fairies.
Suddenly the capling rolled over, snatched up both the pieces of crystal, and dashed off into the trees, whooping triumphantly.
“That does it!” she barked, charging after. “You actually worried me, you little menace!”
The capling unwisely picked a straight route through the trees; given that her legs were longer than it was tall, Trissiny outpaced it in seconds, and scooped the little fae up bodily with both hands. “Hah! Who’s clever now?”
It raised its hands in apparent surrender, one shard clutched in each, and then very lightly tossed one of them. She shut her eyes instinctively, but the shard bounced off her forehead, not even hard enough to leave a mark. If it has wanted to put her eye out at that range, with a double handful of sharp crystal, it certainly could have.
“Mm hm, that’s one,” she said wryly, while the shard fell to lie on the dead leaves around her feet. “Now come on, cough it up.”
The capling held up the remaining shard before her face, atop its palm, and she noted for the first time up close that its “hands” were little fleshy pads ringed by six stubby, opposable digits. Before she could do anything, though, it suddenly tossed the shard over her shoulder and made a gargling noise like a turkey.
Trissiny turned around just in time to see another capling scuttling off into the trees, holding aloft the shard.
“You little booger,” she said, and her captive gobbled at her again. She started to drop it, but thinking better of that, turned and gently set it down atop a large tree root—taking care to snatch up the fallen shard before it could reach it again. “I guess this round’s a draw,” she said, holding up the glowing fragment of crystal.
Her erstwhile opponent hopped up and down and made a shrill whoop that she only recognized as the call of a peacock because there happened to have been one in the botanical gardens in Tiraas from which she’d once stolen a mimosa blossom. Then it hopped down and scurried away, still cawing.
Trissiny felt she ought to be soundly annoyed by that whole episode, but found herself grinning, much to her own surprise.
“All right,” she called, turning in a slow circle in search of more signs of movement, “who’s next?”
On cue, Gabriel came crashing through a stand of mushrooms, none of which were sentient, fortunately. Before Trissiny could say anything, he tossed her an insane grin and then a shard of glowing crystal. Her reflexes were amply sharp enough to snatch it out of the air, since she saw it coming.
“Really, Gabe?” she snorted.
“Is that all you’ve got?” he shot back, holding up a fist with several jagged crystal tips protruding through his fingers. “Man, Trissiny. I’m still not clear on what the rules are for this game, but I think we can safely determine that you suck at it.”
“How the—you were gone for a minute and a half!”
“I was gone for a minute and a half, screwing around.” He winked. “I have it on good authority that that’s my greatest strength.”
“Well, isn’t this handy,” she said ominously, taking a step toward him. “And here I was just asking who was next.”
He fled, cackling nearly as obnoxiously as the caplings. Trissiny got five paces after him before instinct and a flash in her peripheral vision made her twist and snatch another crystal that was flying at her. She stuck out her tongue at the capling who had thrown it, earning a truly bizarre trumpeting noise in response, and immediately flung the shard at another one which was trying to creep up on her from an oblique angle barely within her field of view.
“Can I just point out,” she shouted to the room at large, “I’m the only one here with eyeballs and no hethelax invulnerability? Go easy, for heaven’s sake!”
“Maybe they are!” Gabe called from off to her left, hidden by the forest. “Maybe that’s why you’re lagging behind.”
“I’m gonna lag your behind!”
“I have no idea what that means but it’s somehow the must unsettling thing I’ve ever heard.”
“You disappoint me, Trissiny,” his sidekick added. “I was counting on you to be a wet blanket, as usual. Now he’s going to try to solve all his problems by playing tag.”
“Shut up, Ariel!” they belted in unison.
Trissiny chased off after him, trying to follow his laughter as he moved away, and not quite managing to keep up. She’d always been more than his match in agility, but Gabriel had grown more nimble thanks to Professor Ezzaniel’s efforts and their various adventures, and no matter how used she was to moving in armor it was inevitably somewhat cumbersome in close quarters like these. Before she even caught a glimpse of his coat through the woods—or maybe she did, it was the perfect color to be excellent camouflage in here—another capling reared up, its hand upraised with a crystal shard whose glow cut through the shadows.
They were, she soon decided, actually taking it easy on her; three times she caught sight of Gabriel being pelted with shards hard enough to make him yelp in protest, though biologically speaking it couldn’t possibly have hurt. To her, though, the caplings tossed them relatively softly, and either telescrolled their movements so she had ample time to react or hit her from behind, with no threat to the eyes. Was this sensitivity some inherent characteristic of caplings? It seemed more likely it was one of the Tower’s safety features at work, though she had already resolved to do some research on these little creatures anyway when she had the chance. Just from sheer curiosity, and also because this was the second time she’d encountered them in dungeons.
It was to her own amazement that she discovered that some of the laughter echoing through the chamber was her own.
Trissiny, following a flicker of movement from ahead, hesitated in the shadow of a tree, listening to rustling from its other side, then lunged out to ambush the crystal-bearing capling she’d been tracking. Unfortunately, she discovered two things: that she had emerged again into the clearing around the door, and that Gabriel had had the same idea from the other side of that tree. Trissiny didn’t have enough reaction time for a proper wrestling throw, luckily for him, but managed to turn what would have been a head-on collision into an awkward sidestep.
And then Gabriel, with a deftness she knew for a fact he couldn’t have achieved had he been trying, tangled one of his legs through hers in the act of trying to evade her, and sent them both crashing to the ground.
Surprisingly, they were both still laughing when they landed.
“And still in the lead!” he chortled, scraping up his collection of shards where he’d just dropped half of them among the leaves. “You’ve got, what, three?”
“It’s a good thing you’re so bad at everything,” she snipped back, unable to suppress her own grin. “You’re a terribly ungracious winner, Gabe.”
“Oh, hey,” he said in surprised, lifting his eyes from her. “I guess…that means we won.”
They were fully surrounded by caplings, now; once the whole tribe was out in the open, there were over a dozen of them. More than half were carrying shards, but instead of throwing them, they now clustered around, carefully depositing the fragments in the pile Gabriel had just accidentally made.
Trissiny spied the little red-and-white-capped one from before and patted it gently with her gauntlet, earning a series of songbird-like chirps in response.
“That was officially the best test ever,” Gabe announced while the caplings, their business apparently done, turned and vanished back into the fungal undergrowth.
“I don’t understand anything that just happened here,” Ariel complained. “What was the point of that? You accomplished nothing, learned nothing, and demonstrated no skills of any kind. Salyrene’s Tower is supposed to test the strength and intellect of magic users. No one even did any magic!”
Gabriel and Trissiny shared a look, both still grinning.
“Ariel,” she said in a deliberately pompous tone, “some things…are just beyond comprehension.”
“So, I should take that as an admission that you are just as baffled as I?”
“Maybe, but at least I got my heartbeat up and worked some muscle.”
“I have never had one of your squishy biological experiences, thankfully. Without exception they sound utterly revolting.”
“Okay, enough,” Gabriel said, patting her hilt. “If you’re just gonna grouse, be silent.”
“Ah, yes. Far be it from me to trespass on your turf.” Having had the last word, though, she at least stopped talking.
Gabriel and Trissiny shuffled onto the cleared stone surface near the door, carefully depositing all the crystal pieces between them, and began the process of fitting them back together. This proved a challenge mostly because they were meant to form a rounded disc-like shape, to judge by the indentation in the door panel, which did not want to sit upright on a flat surface. After a couple of failed attempts to get the pieces to sit still, they settled for starting to arrange them on the floor in roughly the correct position, but with some inches between them.
“So how are we going to get this thing together when we’ve figured out all the right places?” Trissiny asked. “I think it’s gonna be too big to fit in our hands…”
“Solving the problem in front of us before worrying about the next one has worked so far,” he said glibly. “I say we stick with that. So, uh, Triss… I was just wondering about something.”
“Just one thing?” she asked with a chuckle. “You’re doing better than I am, then.” She glanced up at him, and then hesitated in her sorting efforts, finding his expression more serious than she’d expected.
“Most of what I know about Eserites comes from Val Tarvadegh’s crash courses on Pantheon theology,” he said, now wearing a faint frown. “So, I’m just gonna assume it’s, shall we say, incomplete, when not actually tainted by a Vidian perspective.”
“A Vidian perspective, as I understand it, isn’t a whole lot different from an Eserite one…”
“Yeah, that’s…the thing. He sort of mentioned that. Okay, so, I’m really not trying to start any shit, here, but…you seem to not like playing games all that much. Or, at least, to not want to. It seemed like you had fun just now, once you got into it?”
Trissiny looked up at him again, raising an eyebrow.
“Val always said…” Gabe hesitated, then tried again. “He made it sound like Eserites were inherently playful. Like…they viewed everything as a game. As a kind of…cult-wide attitude.”
“It’s more than an attitude,” she said softly, again lowering her eyes to the shards she was trying to organize. He had paused in the work, but she kept at it, not mentioning that. “It’s doctrine. Life is struggle, and life is a game. The more serious the matter is, the more important it is to approach it as a game. Too much tension stiffens up the mind, makes you slow and clumsy, leads you into mistakes. The game never stops; if you stop playing, you start losing.”
There was silence. After a moment, he began moving crystal pieces again, saying nothing.
“And you’re having trouble reconciling the two,” Trissiny said at last, in a dry tone. “Has it occurred to you that maybe I’m just not a very good Eserite?”
“Uh, no. I can’t really conceive of you not being good at something. At least not something you care enough about to make an effort.”
She glanced up again in surprise, finding an unexpected warmth rushing to her cheeks. Fortunately, he was looking down at the crystals now.
“Gabe, do you remember when we played chess in Sarasio?”
“Yeah, and you kicked my ass.”
“Because you let me win.”
“I did not let you—”
“Come on, we went over that at the time, I saw what you were doing. You kept your mind on the broader situation instead of a specific game, used the first two to learn my strategies so you could counter them. That was my first actual hint that you’re smarter than you tended to act back then.”
“Aw, shucks,” he gushed, giving her a broad grin.
She rolled her eyes at him. “My point is, you didn’t see me shouting and whooping over the chessboard, did you?”
“No, but now that you’ve put that image in my head, I feel like I really missed out.”
“There’s more than one way to enjoy a game, Gabe. Sometimes just losing yourself in the flow is the most satisfying thing there is. No running or laughing involved.”
He looked up again, this time catching her gaze. “You know, I’ve never seen you running and laughing before today. You really should do it more often, Trissiny. It’s a good look on you.”
She lowered her eyes again. “…I know. I just… Part of me thinks doing anything for myself, just for fun, is…a waste of Avei’s resources. So much depends on me.”
“That sounds like a quick way to drive yourself completely insane.”
“I mean it, you’re still hu—you’re just as much a person as anybody, Triss. We all need some things just for ourselves. Just to function.”
“Yes, yes, I know,” she said with a sigh. “Being a hu—person, I have my flaws, too. One is that I’m not great at taking care of myself, emotionally.”
He didn’t seem to know what to say to that, and she didn’t look up again. For some inexplicable reason, she felt nervous about learning what look was on his face at that moment.
“So, on that subject,” he said after a pause, “I’ve been meaning to pick your brain about Eserite ideas, anyway.”
“Having to do with what Vidius wants. The lion’s share of that seems to be cleaning house within his cult, which… I mean, the only success at all I’ve had at that involved scaring the pants off a bunch of them at the temple in Last Rock. But that was one serious priestess and then a gaggle of random followers; if I’m gonna deal with the real movers and shakers, I think I need to improve my game. Uh, considerably. Lady Gwenfaer struck me as the kind of person who has six plans in place to win any conversation before it happens.”
“How do you win a conversation?”
“That was a question I wouldn’t even have thought to ask before I met Gwenfaer. I assure you, it’s doable. She’s good at it. Me? Not so much.”
“I’m gonna stop you there, Gabe,” she said, also stopping work to look up at him seriously. “Bad idea. Fear is a volatile tool.”
“Yes, I know,” he replied in the same tone, also stilling his hands. “That’s why I wanted to ask you for advice before trying to just run off and do stuff. I know that’s a good part of how the Guild operates…”
“And you aren’t the Guild,” she said matter-of-factly. “Rule number one: do not frighten people and then give them a target. Fear transmutes itself to anger under even the slightest pressure; as soon as someone identifies the thing that’s scared them, they’ll either run from it or attack it. You can’t always predict which. The Guild gets away with this because it is formless. The Thieves’ Guild is ancient, and it’s everywhere. You can strike down one thief, and then you’ll have a dozen more after you. By now, the whole world knows better than to do that. And even so, people take swings at us all the time, mostly when they’re too spooked to think straight. You are in the opposite situation with the Vidians, Gabe. You’re one person, and they are a whole, vast network of clever operators sustaining a web you’ve barely glimpsed. The moment they decide you’re a threat to their interests, you’ll find yourself completely surrounded by hostile actors who are better than you at sly maneuvering. That’s a lethal position to be in.”
“Well, that’s good and fucking discouraging,” he muttered.
“With that said,” she continued, now wearing a faint smile, “I think you have a good idea, asking for Eserite insight. I don’t recommend trying to scare the Vidians straight, but there’s still some general practice you can learn from the Guild that can help you deal with them.”
He leaned forward, his whole face lighting up eagerly. “Such as? I’m all ears!”
She couldn’t help grinning along with his enthusiasm. “Well, some basic enforcer strategy, first of all. You always want to give your mark an out.”
“A way out of the pressured situation you’re placing them in. You never, ever back somebody into a corner with no escape. A cornered animal immediately becomes ten times as dangerous, and people are the most dangerous animals to begin with.”
“Huh…what if the whole point is that you don’t want them to escape? You’re just trying to…take them out?”
“In that case, you do it before they see you coming. Enforcers have a certain reputation for theatricality, and there’s a reason for that: the Guild teaches it almost as much as Vidians and Veskers. Coercing people is more about creating the proper manipulation than actually applying force, and coercing people into compliance is the core of an enforcer’s job. But that also serves to disguise the fact that Guild street soldiers are also trained to hit hard and fast, and be gone before anybody realizes what’s happened. That idea also exists in Avenist doctrine: if you mean to destroy someone, do so before they have a chance to react. Ideally, before they ever learn you plan to attack them.”
“Hm,” he mused, frowning off to the side now.
“So, when you want to make someone do something, you create a situation around them. Yourself as the threatening force moving them in a certain direction, walls and situational barriers to limit what they can do, and—and this is most important—the out, which is the thing you want from them. Give them a means of escaping you that makes them do whatever it is you’re trying to get them to do.”
He frowned deeper. “That sounds like a really complicated way to tell somebody ‘gimme your money or I’ll stab you.’”
“That’s one example of the principle in action,” she agreed, nodding. “The Rogue’s Classic, they call it. Understanding the theory is important, though, if you plan to deal with sly people—like Vidian clerics, for example—and get them to do anything more complex than hand over their purses. And in fact, there’s a lot of prep work involved if you do it right. The best practice is to make sure your mark’s out not only lets them escape you, but benefits them.”
“Yep,” she said, nodding again. “Give them a way to actually profit from complying with you, and you’ve created a useful contact that you can leverage in the future. Even if the process involved terrorizing them a little, it’s amazing how positively people will view you if you do the job right. Just force someone to do what you want or suffer the consequences, though, and all you’ve created is a person who knows not to cross you. Which…is useful, but a lot less so in the long run.”
“Okay,” he said, grinning, “this is great stuff. I think I wanna have a longer conversation about this, but maybe someplace more comfortable when we have more time.”
“We seem to have nothing but time, here,” she said with a sigh, “but point taken. I think this thing is… Well, I’m pretty sure I can see where they all go. Now, how are we gonna get it back together?”
They both looked down at the array of crystal shards in silence. Laid out as they were, the shape of the finished disc was apparent, but its rounded surface made it impossible to balance in its complete shape.
“Hmm,” he said, rubbing his chin. “Okay, I think we can do this with just our hands; we’ve got four, after all. You gather pieces together from that end and I’ll do it from this end, and we’ll meet in the middle.”
“That’s about the only thing I can think to try,” she agreed, “unless you brought some glue.”
“Please do not try to reassemble magical artifacts with glue,” Ariel interjected.
“Thank you, Ariel, for the input,” Gabriel said with a sigh. “Ready?”
It was less awkward and worked better than she’d hoped, perhaps because the Tower didn’t intend this part to be a real trial. That only raised more questions—as Ariel had pointed out, chasing caplings around hadn’t seemed like much of a test of anything, especially since they hadn’t had to use any magic. Why would the goddess of magic’s personal dungeon care about their ability to relax and play with fairies? Regardless, once they managed to shove the pieces into a mostly together-ish shape, the fragments abruptly snapped into their full combined form as if drawn magnetically. Just like the crystal obelisk down below, a flash of light coursed over the finished product, and then it was whole, with no remaining cracks or anything to suggest it had ever been broken.
“Well, how about that,” Gabriel said cheerfully, getting to his feet with the completed disc in his hands. It was about the size and shape of two dinner plates stuck together, glowing uniformly in a sickly shade of yellowish green. “Looks like we’ve won this round! And now, for the finishing touch.”
Trissiny also stood, coming to hover by his shoulder while he stepped over to the door and carefully pushed the completed crystal disc into the space in its center. Unsurprisingly, it fit perfectly.
With a suddenness that made Gabriel jump and lose his grip on the disc, the stone double doors slid apart, both halves receding into the walls on either side. Fortunately, the disc stuck in its housing and wasn’t dropped in the process; with the door fully open, half of it still stuck out of the door frame on the left.
Beyond was a swirling vortex of light suspended amid inky blackness.
“Uh huh,” Gabriel said skeptically. “And we’re to just…step into that, are we.”
“It’s a portal,” she said with a shrug. “They’re often depicted that way. The swirling effect is caused by equalizing—”
“Yes, I remember the hellgate,” he said, sighing. “I guess in the tower of magic, what swirls is shiny nonsense rather than clouds. So! You wanna go first?”
He turned to her with an impish grin, but Trissiny was staring ahead, blank-faced. Not at the portal, but at nothing.
“I keep having to learn the same lessons,” she whispered. “It’s been almost two years since I had the epiphany that I’m allowed to make mistakes, and thinking I wasn’t only goaded me into worse ones. I figured out I needed subtler methods to deal with the problems of this century, so I went to the Guild… And I learned how to be even more of a brute than I was, just…more efficiently. I just… It’s the same thing over and over. Even when I try to become better, somehow I keep falling right back into the same… What’s wrong with me, Gabe?”
To his credit, he didn’t try to answer that question. Instead, after a momentary pause, he carefully wrapped an arm around her shoulders.
“Back there, when Ariel was talking about killing all the caplings,” he said quietly, “you seemed like you were about to agree, but then you hesitated, and suddenly threw the crystal piece to one. I had this weird thought at the time which I dismissed, because it’s not like I can know what you’re thinking… But to play a hunch. Were you remembering that night at Last Rock where we…you know?”
Trissiny drew in a deep breath and closed her eyes. “It all comes back to that, doesn’t it. Don’t answer, of course it does. I tried to murder somebody for…for… Of course it comes back to that. There are things you simply don’t…get past.”
“Yeah,” he said softly. “And that’s why you keep having to learn the same lesson.”
At that, she finally looked up at him, her eyebrows drawing together.
“Triss, take it from somebody who’s made an art form of messing up in life: you have to let it go. When you fuck up, find the lesson in it, and don’t do that again. You can’t carry the weight of it. That does literally nothing except wear you down. So we were two dumb, angry, ignorant, crappy people, and one night that all came to a head and somebody nearly died. We’ve both grown. We’re not those people anymore.” He squeezed her, hard enough she could feel the comforting pressure even through her armor. “We’ve both forgiven each other. Trissiny, you have to forgive yourself for that.”
“No,” she said instantly, shaking her head in denial. “No, that’s not—no, I don’t, Gabe. Don’t pretend we were the same. You were stupid and rude and generally needed a kick in the teeth, but you weren’t out to kill someone just for being stupid and rude and… Don’t you get it? Mistakes are one thing. I cannot be that way. If I ever give up being…horrified, and ashamed of that, I’ll—”
“You’ll be able to grow past it,” he interrupted, pulling her closer and leaning his head against hers. “Toby’s always telling me that it’s carrying a grudge that takes effort; forgiveness is the easiest thing in the world, as soon as you stop convincing yourself it’s not. You forgave me, didn’t you?”
“It…wasn’t all that hard, really.”
“Uh huh, then here’s a harder one. Have you forgiven Principia?”
She sighed again, heavily, and finally leaned into him, letting her cheek rest against his shoulder. “I know. We have the same doctrine in my religion. My first one, I mean. Forgiveness is for the person forgiving, not the one forgiven. It’s about letting go of the burden. But when I’m both, I don’t have to—”
“Yes, you do,” he insisted. “It’s like you were just saying. Life’s a game; if you tense up and take it too seriously, you’re not playing anymore, and you start to lose. Let it go, Trissiny. The girl who took a sword to me that night was a self-righteous, ignorant bigot. You are not, any more than I’m the same depressed, resentful little shit who was screaming curses in your face. Tellwyrn was right to make us get used to each other instead of handing down a real punishment. If we’d both gotten what we deserved, we wouldn’t have been able to grow past that. Now we have. You are one of my best friends in the world, and it kills me to watch you torture yourself. Please…just let it go.”
She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to form a reply to that, and found it cut off by an unexpected little gasp. Then another.
Gabriel pulled her around, wrapping both arms around her, and just held her in silence while she shuddered with quiet sobs. They stood framed between the twisted trees and the swirling portal, not moving to step through just yet. There was time.