Every Friday I post a short story for free. It stays up for 1 week and then comes down when I put the next one up. So please enjoy this story while it lasts.
When death stole one life, she searched for another.
Exie used her magic to travel from world to world in search of another place, and another woman, to call home. Grief kept her at Benella’s side for entirely too long, long enough that she left with anger and recriminations at her back. Benella had seemed like the answer to Exie’s prayers but she’d been wrong.
Years spent wandering the paths to infinity hadn’t led Exie to another woman who could replace her lost love. After five years of running, Exie wondered whether she’d ever find someone who could make her settle down.
Then a mistake while walking the paths dropped Exie into a life or death situation with the Goddess of All. Exie’s faith had died along with her lost love Tivian, or so she’d thought. She might have forsaken the Goddess when she ran away from home but it appeared that the Goddess hadn’t abandoned Exie.
Collapsed in a strange world unlike any she’d ever found before, Exie was at the mercy of a woman who could be Tivian’s twin. She might take pity on Exie but it appeared that her husband, world-twin to Exie’s own brother, had no such intentions.
Was this world the last she would ever see or would it prove to be the starting point for a path that led to Exie’s true home?
Another Path to Infinity
“I’m sorry,” Benella said as she dropped Exie’s hands, the smell of distilling rose petals heavy in the air. “I can’t accept.”
Benella’s kitchen was filled with roses from her garden, the heads coolly and methodically cut off at the peak of blossom so that Benella could distill rose water from their petals. Steam drifted around them, dripping down Exie’s drooping curls and forming tiny pearls of water on Benella’s cheeks. The steam only made Benella’s dark hair shine as she looked at the worn floor. Her dark eyes picked out the boards that Exie had replaced for her before raising her eyes to Exie’s again.
Her expression was anything but apologetic. Her eyes were cold despite the regretful smile twisting her lips into an approximation of emotion. Exie swallowed down a surge of acid rage. Months. She had spent months with Benella, helping her fix her house, weeding the garden, laughing at all Benella’s weak jokes about needing a real man in the house but oh well, Exie was close enough.
Close enough to do the hard labor. Close enough to fix what had gone wrong through neglect and lack of money. Close enough to fill Benella’s bed most nights. Not close enough to love, to cherish, or to keep. She’d failed again.
“I know you were expecting something more,” Benella said as she rubbed her hands distastefully over her stained and spotted apron. Once it had been beautifully embroidered, apparently a gift of Benella’s grandmother. Now it showed its years. “You have helped me enormously. I might not have been able to survive the winter without you staying here. The leaks in the roof alone would have destroyed half the food in the pantry.”
“It would have,” Exie agreed, not bothering to hide the harshness of her tone. “Not to mention last week.”
Benella winced at the reminder of Exie’s battle with the local bully boys in her defense. She looked away, the set of her jaw and shoulders defiant. Bruises still dotted Exie’s chest, back and stomach. Her knuckles were scraped and split. Exie had only just gotten sight back in her right eye. It had been ugly with broken blood vessels and bruising when Exie glanced into the water bucket this morning.
“They would have raped you,” Exie said. The words came out casual, as if it was a comment on the weather.
“They wouldn’t have,” Benella replied. Her shudder made the words into a lie.
“I’m just to leave?” Exie asked, said, demanded. “Take my things and walk away. Near a full year I’ve been here for you and I’m just to walk out the door and not look back.”
She expected a denial, some weakening of Benella’s expression. Instead she got a flat stare, a firm nod and a gesture towards the back door where Exie’s traveling bag sat waiting. This time Exie was the one to look away. No matter how often this happened she never expected it. It always hurt to be turned out of a place that she had begun to consider home, even though it could never be her true home.
“Please go,” Benella said.
Exie went and knelt to check that she wasn’t missing anything. Benella’s sharp inhalation soothed a little of Exie’s fury, her pain, but she didn’t look at Benella to memorize her expression. It wouldn’t be any different than the other times. No matter what changed, the rejection and fury were always the same.
No matter how hard she tried, Exie never found someone who looked at her with love, humor. All of them glared when they turned Exie out, looked furious at Exie for daring to care about them. She’d sought each of them out, hunted through the paths to infinity for them, only to be thrown out in the end by every single one of them. Benella was only the most recent to discard Exie’s heart as if it was garbage.
Everything was there, her books and pens, carefully sealed ink and seals. The interior of her bag was much larger than the exterior, letting her bring ample clothes for the many different environments she’d found in her travels. Several pairs of spare boots were secured in one corner. A hidden interior flap that only Exie could open concealed several pounds of gold and silver coins. Exie rarely used them. Working her way was better.
“I’ll want the ring back,” Exie announced as she stood and took her coat off the peg by the back door. “And the necklace and earrings.”
“They were gifts!” Benella objected. When Exie looked, Benella’s hand was over the priceless sapphire pendant that Benella had always treated as if it were glass.
“Consider it payment for the work,” Exie said. “Either way, they’re coming with me. I won’t leave them with you, not after this.”
Outrage had Benella shaking as she jerked the ring off, tossing it at Exie. She nearly tore her ears taking off the earrings. Getting the necklace back took Exie stepping close and glaring down into Benella’s eyes. Benella glared back up at her, one hand crooked as if she intended to throw the slowly simmering pot of water at Exie.
“You’re horrid,” Benella snapped as she dropped the necklace into Exie’s hand.
“You’re the one throwing me out,” Exie replied. “Good luck with Aleksey’s boys. I’m sure that they’ll be excited to hear you’re alone again.”
“I won’t be,” Benella said.
There was enough defiance in her eyes for Exie to know that she’d finally gotten an offer from one of the men in town. Twenty-one year old unmarried women usually didn’t find husbands but apparently Benella had done it. Exie wondered who she’d fucked into offering, wondered which of her trips into town had been for business and which for seduction. It didn’t matter anymore.
Exie could feel the sneer twisting her lip. When Benella raised a hand to slap her, Exie blocked, letting Benella feel the strength she’d always held back. Benella skittered backwards. There was fear in her eyes for the first time. She reached for her broom, holding it between them as if it could protect her.
“I would have stayed with you forever,” Exie said.
“I don’t want you to,” Benella snapped. “Get out of my house! You’re not welcome here anymore!”
“Was I ever?” Exie asked, not expecting an answer.
She took several meat buns, two apples and a niexi fruit, stuffing all of them into her bag despite Benella’s infuriated glare. Exie had picked the apples, rooted out the niexi vine and nurtured its growth. Not to mention that Exie had been the one to catch the rabbit that filled the buns. Benella could deal with her outrage at food being taken.
Rather than leave by the back door as Benella so obviously thought proper, Exie stomped through the house to the front door. She felt even more out place among Benella’s worn furniture and patched cushions than before. It was the house of someone barely scraping by, a person who was desperate for any little scrap that she could get.
“Why did I stay?” Exie asked, her hand resting on the brass doorknob. Most of the gold color had worn off, revealing the iron underneath.
“Because I let you,” Benella snapped. “Go!”
When Exie glanced at her, Benella still had the broom between them. The bent ends of straw were worn to the point that it was a bare nub, hardly able to do its job. Exie laughed, something like relief mixing with pain at the realization that this had been completely wrong from the very beginning.
“I wasn’t asking you,” Exie said.
Her wry smile made Benella stare and hunch her shoulders, not that Exie cared anymore. This attempt at finding a new home was over. Exie should have admitted it was a failure months ago but desperation had driven her to keep trying long after the point of absurdity. Benella’s expression was so puzzled that Exie laughed as she walked out of the sweltering house.
Outside, the day felt so cool compared to Benella’s steamy kitchen that Exie shivered. The porch creaked under her boots, the left side drooping down where the struts had rotted out. Exie had never gotten the time to rebuild the supports. Whoever Benella had seduced into marriage would have to fix it now. It wasn’t Exie’s problem anymore.
Rather than turn left towards town, Exie turned right. The neighbor’s fields had grown up over the summer to the point that they probably couldn’t see Exie walking away. Benella certainly could. She stood on the front porch and glared at Exie’s back. Exie didn’t need to turn around to know that.
“How long has it been?” Exie murmured as she rounded the corner that would lead her into the forest that surrounded the village’s fields. “Months? Nearly a year. Why did I stay?”
She knew why, of course. Benella’s resemblance to Tivian had been too powerful for Exie to ignore. As the trees surrounded Exie, layers of green leaves filtering the heat of the sun enough that the heat of midsummer faded to pleasant warmth that let the sweat on Exie’s skin finally dry. It had been in a forest much like this one that Exie had first met Tivian. Her first meeting with Benella had been on this very path, back when the leaves were gold and scarlet instead of emerald.
Meeting Benella under such similar circumstances had given Exie entirely too much hope. She’d convinced herself over and over again that Benella would become a decent replacement for Tivian despite the many, many ways that they differed. Benella’s short temper, harsh judgments and lack of a sense of humor should have sent Exie back out onto the paths of infinity almost immediately. Instead she’d tortured both herself and Benella by trying to make the relationship work.
“Stupid,” Exie complained. “That was just stupid.”
She’d seen within days that it wasn’t going to work. Exie had just convinced herself that there had to be a way so that she didn’t have to face the possibility of returning home again. Actually, she’d convinced herself to stay every morning and every night, so determined not to face her past that she’d blinded herself to what was happening around her.
Exie took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Benella’s people were so religiously rigid that Exie had even given up her magic. That in itself should have told Exie that she was in the wrong place. Magic was a part of her heart and soul, just as it had been part of Tivian. Giving it up had been one of the hardest things she’d ever done, and for what?
“Nothing,” Exie murmured as she walked slowly through the forest, her firm grip on her magic finally slipping free so that her mind moved with her body.
She let her mind unfurl for the first time since meeting Benella. Dull green leaves became sparkling webs of light. The shafts of light spearing through the canopy vibrated with deadly power. Under her feet the hard-packed earth rumbled with the tread of thousands of feet, remembering the passage of every single person, animal and cart that had passed by.
“I missed this,” Exie admitted as she stared at her right hand. The blood under her skin pulsed with purple and red sparks. Occasional flashes of gold showed the magic that Exie had put aside in the name of love. “But it wasn’t love, was it? I was clinging to something that vaguely looked like love. Tivian always said I was a fool. How many times am I going to prove her right?”
The path stretched ahead of Exie.
She could call on her power and find a path through the infinity of time and space that led her back to her true home. It would be easy enough. No matter where Exie went she felt her home calling to her, tugging away at something deep inside that yearned for that particular shade of blue the sky got after a rainstorm. Exie could almost taste the dust that hung in the air as summer turned into fall and everything turned brown from the heat.
But home also meant an empty house, hopefully still tended by Exie’s little brother. It meant sympathy in people’s eyes. Instead of Tivian’s warm body filling Exie’s bed, there would be a grave stone, dark stone split by two dates too close together to ever be borne. The thought of it made her heart ache.
Five years ago that gravestone had been enough to make Exie scream until her voice gave out, to cry until her eyes were dry as sand. Now the pain of it throbbed inside of her but it was a dull ache instead of a stabbing agony. Time heals all ills, Exie thought, as she let her magic rise towards the surface. Maybe I could bear to go home now. Maybe it’s been long enough to cope with Tivian being gone.
After a moment spent pondering the idea, Exie shook her head.
“Not home,” Exie murmured as the swirling flashes of gold inside her body rose up and outwards, creating a shroud of light around her. “Not yet. I’ll give it another try. There has to be a world where I can find another Tivian. I’ll take another path into infinity. This time I’ll find a woman who’s close enough to Tivian to give me my heart back.”
Her mentor had said that Exie was insane to walk the paths between worlds looking for her lost lover. Dead was dead. No matter how many worlds Exie walked to she would never find another one that matched her home. There was no woman who had the same laughter and quick wit as Exie’s dead Tivian.
Exie shook her head at the memory of his desperate expression, the way he’d pleaded and clung to Exie’s sleeve. She hadn’t listened to him then and she wasn’t going to listen to him now. Going home to an empty bed and an empty heart wasn’t possible. There was only walking onwards between the worlds until she found something or someone that let her pain disappear.
Motes of light swirled in front of her forming a chain of glowing spheres. Benella’s people called them will-o-wisps and said that they were evil spirits that attempted to lure unwary travelers to their death. Exie knew better. For all that her people called them the aleya, they were actually worlds, an infinite chain of worlds that you could walk to if you only had the strength and will to do so.
“One more try,” Exie said just as she had the last four times. “I’ll give it one more try and then I’ll go home.”
She started walking, the web of shimmering lights that were the trees around her fading as she committed herself to the path. Exie allowed that world to fade from her mind, opening to the next world in the chain of aleya. It would be a near twin to Benella’s world, only a few minor details different from what Exie had known in her months there. Given that, there was no reason to stop and check. Benella’s sister in another world would be too similar to make it possible.
“Someone like my Tivian,” Exie prayed as she walked the paths of infinity. “Someone kind. Someone astute. Someone who can kick my ass when I’m being an idiot. Tivian was always so good at making me see my stupid mistakes.”
On the day that Exie had met Tivian, it had been midsummer, the longest day of the year. She’d gone out of town to hunt for herbs and berries for potions. Her master had been busy with clients wanting blessings for the new year that Exie hadn’t been trained in yet. Thus gathering herbs and making potions, salves, magically spelled creams, had been a better task than sitting useless in town.
“I was so young,” Exie mused as her magic made the worlds slowly spin by around her. “Such a little fool.”
The trees flickered from healthy green leaves to drought parched to blackened and burned from a fairly recent forest fire. Exie kept her steps slow and steady, not allowing herself to focus on any one world. The paths to infinity stretched ahead of her and behind, tugging her this way and that. Only her will kept her going away from home towards a world that hopefully would finally give Exie what she’d been seeking.
Tivian’s beautiful hair had been twisted up into a knot on the top of her head, bits of hair sticking out while sweat dripped down the curve of her neck. She’d been wearing a tunic so thin that Exie had easily seen her nipples and the dark patch of hair at her groin. It wasn’t that different from what Exie had worn, though Exie had been in a loose wrap over a pair of her baggiest pants.
“Looking for somewhere cool?” Tivian had asked when she had spotted Exie staring.
“Looking for spell components,” Exie had answered. She’d grinned and eyed Tivian as openly as possible. “Looks like I found something better.”
The ridiculous line had made Tivian laugh as she tucked a loose tendril of hair behind her ear. She had eyed Exie as openly, smiling as if she liked what she saw. Exie moaned. That had been the start. Three short years; that was all they’d had together. Their whirlwind courtship had been the joke of the town but no one had objected when they stood together in the town square, flower-chains binding their hands together.
Tivian had been so beautiful, long dark hair as smooth as silk with skin as dark as night. She had never minded Exie’s raw-boned build or the way she towered over everyone. Exie’s lack of bust and hip had never been an issue to Tivian. So many times she’d praised Exie’s looks as if Exie was half as beautiful as Tivian.
“I could smack the people who convinced you that you’re ugly,” Tivian had sighed on their wedding night as she straddled Exie’s hips and leaned on her chest. “You’re gorgeous, Exie.”
“You drank too much at the wedding,” Exie had laughed, her hands resting on Tivian’s hips. “I’m anything but gorgeous. That’s you.”
Tivian had sighed and shaken her head until Exie moved her hands to Tivian’s groin. Then words had become useless as their bodies, minds and magic mingled together in ways that still made Exie shake. Their joining had made flowers bloom all across town. Cholan had told her the next day that everyone in town and for miles outside of it had felt the sort of bliss that made grown men cry and married couples retreat together to their beds for the night.
Every coupling had been like that, though both Tivian and Exie had put spells on their bedroom to ensure that their pleasure did not go beyond those four walls. The coupling of mages was always a tricky thing but Exie and Tivian had only feared giving others too much joy, not causing death or madness. Nothing had ever come close to the joy of Tivian’s touch against her mind. Her undying fear was that nothing ever would make her feel that way again.
The memories and pain of losing Tivian drove Exie off the path far from any world that felt like a match for her long-gone home. She shuddered as the magic spell that she’d wrought rebounded, rippling through her body and mind. It was bad enough that for a dozen paces that might have equaled as many different worlds, Exie had no awareness of anything other than the pain wracking her body.
“Focus,” Exie hissed through gritted teeth.
She staggered, gasped for air, and hauled her rampaging magic in by sheer force of will. The battering magic blinded her, so bright that flashing lights were all that she could see. It took several moments before Exie’s eyes cleared enough that she could see what was around her. Instead of forests and fields full of life, Exie had stumbled into a world that was hot and dry.
Sand and rock surrounded her, baked orange by the sun. When Exie raised a hand to shade her eyes against the glare of the sun, she was surprised to find three suns overhead instead of one. How she’d traveled that far away from her home world Exie didn’t know but she must have. The physical pain of spell failure and falling off the path made it hard to notice anything other than the most obvious details around her. Exie carefully shook her head before examining where she’d ended up.
A dull red dome of sky vaulted overhead like the inside of an earthenware bowl. Moments later Exie thought that no, it was more like being inside of an oven. It was so hot that she immediately started panting and looking for shade. Cactus surrounded her. The only life she could feel was small, lizards, insects, a snake hiding in its cool burrow under the sand.
When she turned to scan for anything that might promise shelter, a place to gather her wits and her concentration, Exie stumbled backwards in shock. A woman stood behind her, no shadow at her feet despite the three suns overhead. Exie gulped, blinking rapidly to make sure that her eyes were actually working. They were.
“Greetings,” Tivian’s near-twin said with a smile that was entirely too knowing. “I have been expecting that you would end up here eventually.”
Her dress was the same color as the hard-baked orange sand, loose and enveloping. A scarf was draped over her head to keep the beating of the three suns off her head. Exie stared, wishing desperately that she wasn’t so muddled by the spell failure and the heat. Something more was going on here and Exie was in no condition to figure it out. When Tivian’s near-twin offered another scarf, this one with four red bands woven into the selvage, to Exie, she took it as it seemed to be the only refuge against the heat anywhere close by.
“Who are you?” Exie asked as she cautiously took the scarf. She still couldn’t feel the other woman even though their fingers brushed together.
“You may call me Jenika,” the other Tivian said. “Come. My home is this way. I was expecting you to come to my door in time. You showed up rather sooner than I thought was likely. I’m pleased. You have needed to visit for quite some time, my dear.”
She walked away without looking to see if Exie followed. To Exie’s surprise, Jenika’s feet appeared to be bare. The rocks, hot sand and thorns didn’t seem to bother her at all. Exie frowned as a thorn bush caught her pants, tearing a small hole in the fabric before she freed herself. Jenika’s much more fragile dress hadn’t caught at all.
“What are you?” Exie asked as she stumbled through the desert after Jenika.
It was so hot, so incredibly hot, and her head throbbed so very badly that Exie lost track of where they were going almost immediately. Only by keeping her eyes locked on Jenika’s back could Exie keep moving. No matter how slowly or quickly Exie went, Jenika stayed the exact same distance ahead of her. Despite the heat radiating off the sands making Exie’s lungs feel as though they were being scorched by fire, Jenika showed no signs of distress. She might as well have been walking through a meadow on a cool spring morning.
“I think you know,” Jenika replied, her eyes sparkling with amusement when she looked over her shoulder at Exie. “Do be careful. The first step can be rather steep.”
“What first step?” Exie asked only to stop in her tracks.
Where only endless sand and rock had been before, suddenly there was a gorge. Exie swallowed against a dry mouth that had nothing to do with the heat around her. Impossible suns, living beings she couldn’t detect and a shifting landscape that said more about her heart’s state than about a real world said only one thing.
“Goddess, I didn’t ask for a boon,” Exie said as she carefully followed the steep trail down into the gorge. It’s resemblance to a woman’s private parts wasn’t lost on Exie, especially not given that the heat decreased with every step as green living things sprang up around her.
“Didn’t you?” Jenika asked. “I seem to remember you asking for someone who could kick your ass when you were being an idiot.”
She chuckled and the sound of her laughter filled the gorge. It filled Exie’s head as if her skull was a bell and Jenika’s voice was the clapper striking sound out of her. Reality, or what little of it that Exie could perceive at this moment, wavered around them. The walls of the canyon wavered like heat-created mirages. For a moment Exie’s hand pushed into the bolder she leaned against, leaving behind a smoking hand print only to have the boulder fade away a moment later.
The temptation to curse at herself for being so foolish as to pray while walking the paths to infinity was there. Exie resisted it. She’d brought this on herself. If her mentor had been right about the aftermath of falling off the paths to infinity then Exie was delirious, stumbling through a mixture of worlds that vaguely resembled what she saw. No matter what she saw right now, she couldn’t rely on it being real, any more than other people could rely on her being real.
She was flickering between worlds, unaware of her own magic moving her about, bouncing her from world to world. If anyone chanced to be in the right place at the right time they might catch a glimpse of a ghostly figure that resembled Exie but the vision would fade almost as soon as they saw it. Until her strength ran out or the Goddess took pity on Exie, she was bouncing between worlds without control.
Unfortunately, everything that Exie would experience as she walked the Goddess’ path was every bit as real as anything else that Exie had ever been through. Snake bites would still kill. Poison would still sicken her. And water would still quench her thirst, which by this point was torturous. Her delirium must have affected her awareness of time because she couldn’t remember how she got from the top of the canyon to the bottom, or how she’d made her way to the other end of it. The canyon seemed completely real to her but it couldn’t be. Exie stared as they came to the end of the canyon, arriving at the Goddess’ temple.
A cave led the way deeper into the rock face that towered overhead. The entrance was dark with shadows that Exie’s eyes couldn’t see through. Her gifts couldn’t pierce the darkness either. At the opening was a beautiful fountain with water cascading from the statue of a woman holding a vase. The woman looked exactly like Tivian before her death.
“Drink,” Jenika offered. “Refresh yourself. You are safe here for a time.”
“And when that time is up?” Exie asked warily.
“Then you shall go forth into your life once more,” Jenika replied. “I do not think you will linger here for long, Exie World-Walker. You are not one to let life come to you. You always must be the one to go capture it instead.”
The truth in that made Exie hesitate for a few moments before she drank from the fountain. Jenika’s hand rested on Exie’s shoulder, warm and real despite the fact that she was a goddess instead of a human being. Exie turned and looked, seeing wrinkles around Jenika’s eyes. There were deep wrinkles alongside her mouth which was turned down with worry. The otherworldliness of Jenika’s appearance was gone, replaced by a solidity that made Exie blink in confusion.
“Come inside where it’s cooler,” Jenika urged, her voice gentle despite the worry.
“Are you real?” Exie asked.
“Of course I am,” Jenika said. “What else would I be?”
Her hand on Exie’s shoulder was strong enough to compel Exie to go into the dark opening of the cave. Inside there were tiny oil lamps set along the wall like the aleya, leading Exie deeper into Jenika’s world. Or perhaps it was a home. It was hard to tell.
Exie’s legs shook far too hard for the short walk she’d had, both magically and physically. Only as they moved from a long dark hallway into an open cavern with many homey furnishings did Exie realize that her skin felt burnt. She looked at one hand, stumbling to a stop when she saw blisters forming on the back.
“I’m burned?” Exie asked.
“Yes, you are,” Jenika said. “You were out in the sun for far too long. I believe you’re a bit sun addled. Come lie down. I have ointment that will ease the pain.”
“So do… so do I,” Exie said as Jenika gently tugged her towards a bed set into the cave wall. She let Jenika pull her boots off, strip her clothes until she was in her underwear. “In my bag. There are… are…”
Words failed to come as Jenika pushed her back onto the bed. The movement made her head swim, the world lurching violently around her. Exie groaned, wondering exactly how long she’d actually wandered through the desert. Was there a desert? She couldn’t be sure. It had been a very long time since she’d lost control of the paths this badly.
“How is she?” a man’s voice asked.
“Not good,” Jenika murmured. “The burns are bad but my salve should help. She muttered something about having something in her bag but I didn’t understand what she meant.”
“Must have been in terrible shape to take a death shroud to wrap up in,” the man sighed.
“I know,” Jenika sighed. “It looks like she was bitten by a snake, too. Her ankle’s far too swollen.”
Exie wanted to sit up, to ask what they were talking about, but her body lay still on the bed. Jenika’s hands smoothed something cool and wet over her arms and legs, carefully applied it to her face. It smelled of sage and copper. After a second Exie thought no, it smelled of sage and blood, her blood. Something sharp sliced into her ankle, the man’s voice now distant while Jenika’s remained close.
“Rest, little World-Walker,” the Goddess said in Jenika’s voice. “You are safe here. No harm shall come to you in this place.”
“Has she woken yet?”
Exie shifted at the sound of the man’s voice. It seemed familiar somehow, the depth wrong but the cadence matching someone in her memory. She batted at the light blanket over her body, tired and sore enough that she only wanted sleep. Gentle hands pulled the blanket back into place, caressing her hair in just the right way to soothe Exie.
“Not yet, Peni,” Jenika whispered. “Soon, I think. Why?”
“She reminds me of my sister,” the man said in a low burr of sorrow that made Exie pay attention despite her exhaustion. “Older, much more raw-edged, but… there’s something about her jaw and nose that remind me of her.”
“I’m sorry,” Jenika murmured in an equally sad tone of voice. “I wish I had met her.”
“You would have liked her,” Peni sigh-laughed, the sound mixing emotions such that Exie couldn’t tell which was more powerful, the amusement or the sorrow. “She would have tried to seduce you from the first moment she laid eyes on you.”
Jenika’s snort was amused. The emotion Exie felt from her was pure disbelief, strong enough to pull Exie up from slumber. Opening her eyes was a struggle. Something wet and sticky coated her eyelids, gluing her eyes shut. When Exie grunted in annoyance as she tried to wiggle a hand free from the blanket, Jenika came over and gently brushed a wet rag over her eyes.
“There we go,” Jenika said in the gentle patient tone reserved for the desperately ill. “Can you see me?”
Exie blinked, nodding. “Beautiful.”
Jenika gasped and blushed, her dark cheeks flushing red at the praise. Peni laughed from the doorway, prompting Exie to look in his direction. An older version of her younger brother leaned against the cave wall, smiling at Exie as if fondly amused by her comment.
His build was rangier, taller, but he had Cholan’s round cheeks, his full lips and sable skin. Where Cholan had been nothing but baby fat and potential when she left, Peni was a man grown with muscle and strength to spare. It was like seeing Cholan once more, only not. The passage of time might have made her brother look like Peni. Exie didn’t know. She hadn’t been home since Tivian’s funeral. Exie stared at Peni until he blushed faintly, nodding politely.
“You truly do remind me of my sister,” the man said awkwardly enough that Exie allowed her eyes to move away from him. “I would have had to compete for Jenika’s hand if she still lived. She would have been as smitten as you are with my wife.”
“Peni,” Jenika huffed. “Stop.”
“She’s beautiful,” Exie said to Peni. “Reminds me of my wife.”
“Gone?” Peni asked, the pain suddenly raw and visible on his face.
“Yes,” Exie whispered. “Plague. I honestly would have preferred to go with her than survive.”
“My sister went from an animal attack,” Peni replied, his pain audible in his voice too.
Exie shut her eyes against it, her heart hurting for his hurt. For once another person’s pain was more vivid than her own, though Exie’s heart still ached for Tivian. She ignored Jenika’s gentle touch, ignored the way that Jenika stood and went to whisper something to Peni. His footsteps went down the cave’s passage, disappearing into the outer world that Exie wasn’t sure if she remembered correctly.
“I’m sorry you lost her,” Jenika murmured once she’d settled next to Exie again.
“So am I,” Exie sighed. “She was… my whole world.”
Jenika patted Exie’s shoulder gently, always gently. “Your ankle will take a while to heal properly. You were bitten by a snake while you wandered.”
“That explains the vision I had of a goddess giving me a scarf and showing me the way here,” Exie said. She opened her eyes to smile wryly at Jenika who stared back at her. “I must have been delirious for quite a while. I don’t really remember how I got here, just that there was flat land, then a canyon out of nowhere. The goddess sent me down one end of the canyon and told me to drink from a fountain. Then you were the goddess, guiding me into this cave.”
“You were delirious,” Jenika laughed as she brushed her hair out of her face and blushed. “I’m no goddess, not at all.”
“No, but you’re beautiful and I’m grateful for the help,” Exie said. “I’m sorry to take your bed.”
Jenika huffed at the compliment much the way she’d huffed at Peni for praising her. For the first time Exie understood Tivian’s annoyance at Exie’s refusal to accept compliments on her appearance. It felt strange not to have the compliments accepted, not that Jenika was available, anyway. A married woman could never take Tivian’s place in Exie’s heart.
“I’ll bring some food, some water,” Jenika said as she stood. “You need to rest and let your burns heal.”
“What?” Jenika’s surprise made Exie smile until her aching face reminded her that burns didn’t appreciate movement.
“My name,” Exie said with a tiny shrug. “Exie is my name.”
Jenika’s smile made her light up like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. She nodded as she slipped slowly out of the room, one hand on the cave wall. When Jenika paused, Exie raised an eyebrow at her curiously.
“It’s not our bed,” Jenika said. “This is the Goddess’ temple. You’re sleeping on her bed, in her shrine. We keep all people who are sun addled or injured here. It helps them heal faster.”
Her lighter laughter mingled with Exie’s startled bark of amusement. Neither of them acknowledged the fear in Exie’s laughter. There was no reason to. Exie couldn’t admit that she more than likely had seen a goddess. Jenika certainly wouldn’t welcome being told that she had been the face of the goddess all along, either. Or maybe the goddess had taken Tivian’s face. It was much the same.
The cave was quiet with Jenika gone. Exie carefully twisted around to look at her environment. It took entirely too much effort to do so and too much pain. Her entire back felt as though it had burned through her clothes. The backs of her thighs, calves, and shoulders were horrible. There was one spot on her hip that didn’t hurt. It had been underneath her bag.
“My hair hurts,” Exie moaned as she panted through the pain. “How can my hair hurt?”
Across the cave from her borrowed bed was a small altar carved into the wall. There were dozens of small statues carved from dark stone or wood dotting the altar. She couldn’t make out what they looked like. Too many tiny oil lamps burned in front of them. Overhead the cave seemed to open up to the outside world. Light tumbled down in a shimmering shaft that rippled and danced like water in motion.
Exie frowned only to stop due to the pain of moving her face. She really should get at the potions hidden away in her bag. They would heal her more quickly than Jenika’s salve or a supposedly magical cave that didn’t feel magical at all to Exie. The goddess’ calm voice filled her memory, reassuring Exie that she was safe here for a while, at least. That made her shiver and shift despite the pain as she hadn’t been able to sense the goddess either. Maybe the cave was blessed?
“You really shouldn’t move,” Jenika said as she came back in with a jug of water, some sort of dates and a small stack of flat bread. “You’re quite badly burned.”
“I wanted to see where I was,” Exie said. “I have healing potions in my bag. I don’t need to stay here.”
“Do you want to stay?” Jenika asked as she held the jug so that Exie could drink with as little effort as possible.
Eating dates and bread gave Exie time to think the question over. Even her potions would take a day or two before they fully healed the burns. Her eye would heal almost instantly with this potion, at least. If the snake bite had truly been that bad it might be three days before Exie was back to normal in that regard. She could walk the paths while injured, though. Exie had done it before. But doing so was miserable and difficult, taking her to places she did not want to go.
“I want to,” Exie said finally. She smiled at Jenika’s start of surprise. “I don’t think I’ll be capable of travel for a couple of days at best even with my potions.”
“Then stay,” Jenika counseled. “You’re safe here with the Goddess. When you’re strong enough you can continue onwards though I recommend accepting better clothes for your trip. Yours didn’t do a very good job of shielding you from the sun.”
Exie’s laugh made Jenika laugh too. For the first time in a very long time the laugh of one of Tivian’s world-sisters didn’t make Exie’s heart ached. She didn’t know why. Perhaps it was exhaustion. Or maybe it was simply that Jenika was already taken. There was no possibility of love blooming between them.
A voice inside that sounded very much like the Goddess with Jenika’s face laughed at that. Exie shivered and looked at the altar, not wanting to accept the truth her heart murmured. The reason interacting with Jenika didn’t hurt so much was because Exie was finally getting over Tivian’s death. She was healing at long last.
The thought made her flinch away from Jenika’s gentle touch. Exie didn’t want to heal. She didn’t want to forget. Tivian had been her whole world. Forgetting her and moving on with her life felt like a horrible betrayal. Jenika frowned at the flinch, apparently unaware of the source of Exie’s discomfort.
“Rest some more,” Jenika said.
“Potions first, then rest,” Exie countered. “Sooner they’re taken the sooner they’ll take effect.”
Jenika brought over Exie’s bag, sitting on the foot of the bed as Exie sat up, hissing at the pain of moving her burns. The potions were still exactly where they should be, tucked into the little box of medical supplies that Exie had brought from home. One for venom and a second for burns should work well enough to get Exie on her feet in a day or so.
The face Exie made as she swallowed the burn potion made Jenika laugh, her head tilted forward so that her hair shielded her face. Exie wanted to make Jenika look up, wanted to talk to her, to convince her somehow that she was lovely, but even though Jenika wore Tivian’s face Exie wouldn’t flirt with another person’s wife.
“They taste bad?” Jenika asked after Exie swallowed the second potion and made another face.
“As my mentor used to say, if it doesn’t taste bad it’s not good for you,” Exie said. “Though I still think he was a bit sadistic.”
She used a tiny spark of magic to clean and dry the bottles. Normally the spell was so small that no one noticed but showers of tiny golden sparkles of magic erupted around them, enveloping Exie and Jenika. Exie stiffened, worried because she hadn’t had time to determine if this world was another one where magic was forbidden, evil.
To her relief, Jenika gasped, delight on her face as she held her hands up to catch the sparks as they fell. She beamed at Exie, eyes wide and full of awe. The sparkles swirled around Exie several times before drifting across the cavern to cluster on the goddess statues there.
“You’re Gifted,” Jenika breathed. “I had no idea!”
“I… generally don’t show it,” Exie admitted. Jenika’s curious look made Exie sigh. “It was… something I did with my wife, Tivian. I don’t… I don’t, anymore.”
Jenika frowned, one hand resting on Exie’s calf as if she wanted to shake Exie until she saw sense. It was something that Tivian had done many times though Tivian usually followed the touch with a long lecture about not being a fool. Exie braced herself for it but Jenika only stood, still frowning.
“I’ll leave you to rest,” Jenika said. “I hope that your potions help.”
“Thank you,” Exie replied warily enough that Jenika’s frown turned into a wry smile. “I’m sure they will. They’re strong potions.”
The cave was very quiet once Jenika left. Rather than lie on her aching back, Exie rolled onto her side, letting her unburned hip take the worst of the pressure. She didn’t expect to fall asleep but her injuries combined with the quiet of the cave soothed Exie into a fitful slumber. Broken dreams of walking through a desert with Tivian by her side woke Exie multiple times. Every time she woke, Exie stared at the altar across the cavern. No matter how hard she looked she couldn’t make out the faces of the goddess statues.
Several hours of not terribly restful sleep finally eased as Exie fell into a deep sleep. She didn’t remember anything when a man’s hand gently shook her shoulder. Exie started and stared at Peni, her nostrils flaring as she automatically took in the scent of dust and water, fragrant oil and something spicy.
“It’s evening,” Peni said.
“Okay?” Exie asked as she carefully flexed her back and then sat up. The burns were much better than they had been.
“I thought you might like to get clean,” Peni chuckled. “That salve does wonders for burns but it is terribly sticky after a little while.”
“So I see,” Exie said. She stared at the blanket stuck to her legs, chuckling in spite of herself. “Washing it off sounds like a wonderful idea. Not sure what happened to my clothes though.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Peni said. “Everyone knows that you’re burned. They don’t expect you to be decent, not that your clothes were good enough for the sun anyway.”
He led Exie out of the cave and out into the rapidly cooling night. The labia-shaped canyon was nowhere to be seen. Yes, Exie’s cave was in a cliff face as she remembered but the cliff extended as far as she could see in either direction. The fountain was actually a waterfall that tumbled out of the cliff face not too far from the opening of her cave.
“Problem?” Peni asked as Exie stared around the mud-walled huts and golden-green fields that surrounded her.
“…I was really delirious,” Exie sighed. She waved at the world around her. “This isn’t at all what I remember.”
Peni grinned and shrugged, gesturing for her to join him by the waterfall. “None of us saw you come into the village. According to Jenika, you just appeared by the fountain while Jenika was gathering water for washing dishes. She didn’t see you walk up. Most everyone was out in the fields. She said something about your having come through the canyon but that’s several miles away.”
Exie followed him, limping a bit as her ankle objected to the movement. It wasn’t terribly sore, thank goodness, but it was very stiff. When they got to the waterfall, Peni waved one hand over the water tumbling down. Magic swirled out of him, the sparkles visible just the way they had been in the cave. Exie started in surprise as the water began to steam. Peni shrugged and gestured for her to wash herself off.
“Hot water does a better job of removing the salve than cold water does,” Peni said. “I’ll put it back to normal when you’re clean.”
“You’re always this open about your Gifts?” Exie asked.
The hot water felt incredibly good at first. It cut through the salve quickly and then hit her still tender skin. Exie hissed at the stinging but kept scrubbing at her body. Most of the stinging was from her skin sloughing off.
Underneath the shed skin, Exie was red and tender but it looked like she wouldn’t scar too badly. The blistered areas on her forearms looked as though they’d scar. Her face felt similar, but it wasn’t too bad. Scrubbing her scalp was excruciating. It took entirely too long to work the knots out of her hair well enough to get the shed bits of skin out.
“You showed Jenika first,” Peni said when Exie came up for air. He offered a towel.
“I didn’t expect the response to be quite that powerful,” Exie admitted as she carefully rubbed her hair dry and then patted the rest of her skin. “How’s my back?”
“You’re going to have scars from the burns,” Peni sighed. He shrugged. “It can’t be avoided, not when you were dressed that way. You’re lucky it wasn’t much worse, honestly.”
Exie stared at him, seeing her little brother even more strongly when Peni laughed and ducked his head as if he was trying to hide his grin. A sharp wave of homesickness hit her, surprising Exie. She hadn’t been home in years, almost five years now. Cholan would be about Peni’s age now. The baby fat would be gone, melted away by the years. When she’d left he hadn’t had any magic at all but it was possible that his powers had bloomed during her absence.
She’d missed so much. Running away, taking the paths to infinity, had seemed like the best way to find her lost Tivian but now Exie wondered what she’d given up in her mad rush to replace her lost love. What had she missed back home? Did Cholan have a wife? Children? Was he happy and content or did he look out the window for Exie every night?
“What’s wrong?” Peni asked.
“Homesick,” Exie admitted, the hurt of it making it hard to breathe. “That… I haven’t been homesick in ages.”
Peni cocked his head at Exie, the evening light painting his face with patches of darkness that made his expression virtually unreadable. Light gleamed in his eyes like fireflies dancing across a field. There was a feeling of power and strength to him that reminded Exie of the goddess who had brought her here.
“Then go home,” Peni said, his voice strange and distant as a chill settled over the area. “That is where you belong, isn’t it, sister-mine? Or are you here to steal my wife away?”
Exie jerked upright, staring at Peni. The darkness was too deep to see his expression so she let her sense expand. Sparkles of light that had always been invisible before swirled visibly around them. Peni’s expression was harsh, angry enough that Exie’s breath caught.
Of course he knew, Exie thought. He was a mage, just as she was. He had to know of the paths to infinity even if he hadn’t walked them. If he was Cholan’s world-twin then it only made sense that Peni had had a sister who was Exie’s near duplicate. Logic dictated that Jenika had to be as precious to Exie as she was to Peni, not that she ever could be.
“She’s not my Tivian,” Exie said with a decisive shake of her head.
“Isn’t she?” Peni asked. “She’s close enough given that you’re a veritable twin to my sister Pala.”
“No,” Exie replied, the loss of Tivian tugging at her heart again, the pain old, familiar, worn by time. “No, she’s not. She never could be. The face is the same but she’s not my Tivian. Everything else is wrong.”
Even with her eyes closed Exie was intimately aware of Peni’s posture and expression. She could feel his anger. Would Cholan be as angry when Exie finally went home? Would he rage at her for leaving him alone for so long?
“You are so much like him,” Exie whispered. Peni’s surprise prompted Exie to open her eyes. “My brother, Cholan. He was still practically a baby when I left. It was only the two of us but I left him behind. I couldn’t bear that house without Tivian in it. I couldn’t stand the thought of the silence without her.”
If anything, her whisper made Peni even angrier. His magic swelled up, the sparks reddish in comparison to Exie’s golden sparks. When they contacted one another there was a flash of light that sent electric shocks through Exie. She stepped out of the water, pulling her magic back in so that the cloud of light that surrounded them was red and angry.
“You left him there?” Peni snapped. His voice carried over the mud-walled houses around them. “Alone?”
“It was that or kill myself,” Exie replied.
The raw honesty of that, so uncharacteristic of who Exie had become since Tivian’s death, slowed the swirling red sparks of magic surrounding them. She could see Jenika by the cave entrance, standing with her hands pressed against her mouth. Peni’s back was turned but he seemed equally aware of her.
“What would you have done?” Exie asked, her voice deliberately pitched low enough that Jenika couldn’t hear it. “She died in my arms, Peni. I used every scrap of magic I had to try to save her life, every potion, every spell, everything I knew. People were dying all around us. Cholan got sick, survived. I got sick. All either of us cared was that she lived. We failed, both of us. She died in my arms and I couldn’t do a thing about it. My bright, beautiful Tivian, gone. She never woke. I never got to say goodbye.”
He flinched, looking away though he deliberately didn’t look in Jenika’s direction. Peni sat on bank next to the waterfall, long arms wrapped around equally long legs. Exie sat as well though only for an instant. The grass felt like knife blades against the tender skin of her rear end and thighs. Her response made Peni chuckle.
“Tender,” Exie complained as she gingerly rubbed the small of her back. It was just as sensitive as her legs were. Standing on her stiff ankle was much better than sitting on the grass. “The potions I used make the skin grow back quickly but the process is a bit painful.”
He snorted. “You should have let Jenika’s salve do it. There’s no tenderness. Lots of stickiness but no tenderness.”
“No, this isn’t where I want to be,” Exie said. She sighed, watching Peni’s sparkles as they faded from angry red to regretful yellow. “I wanted to find her again. To find another Tivian I could fall in love with all over again.”
“That doesn’t work,” Peni observed.
The way he said it made Exie stare at him. His forehead was pressed against his knees. He’d wrapped himself into such a tight ball that he looked like a boulder in the darkness instead of a person. Jenika hurried over, her long pale dress rustling in the darkness. Peni’s magic swirled inwards, retreating like a startled snail hiding inside its shell.
Exie created a small light over their heads when Jenika stumbled on a rock despite the little noise of refusal Peni made. She watched as Jenika knelt and gently touched the center of his back. The touch was so hesitant the Exie wanted to snap at her not to be so frightened but this wasn’t bold Tivian. It was Jenika and apparently gentleness came naturally to her in the same way forcefulness came to Tivian.
“I’m all right,” Peni muttered.
“No, you’re not,” Exie said when Jenika only sighed. “Neither am I but that’s to be expected. Losing someone you love rips a hole in your heart.”
“Does it go away?” Peni asked.
“How long has it been since she died?” Exie asked.
“Two years,” Jenika replied when Peni didn’t respond. “She died shortly before Peni met me.”
“Five years for me,” Exie sighed. “And… maybe? I don’t know. I haven’t handled Tivian’s death that well.”
“Really?” Peni asked.
He raised his head finally, the question anything but a question. It was droll and darkly amused, full of the knowledge of just exactly what Exie had done in her effort to find another Tivian to love. Jenika shivered as if she could feel what Exie did. Deep regret and complete condemnation filled Peni only to be replaced moments later by wild longing to do exactly the same thing.
Exie wondered for a moment whether he’d done what she did, walking the paths to find another copy of his sister, only to stop when he got there because he saw how wrong it was. She’d almost done that. It was only the knowledge that her bed would be empty that had kept Exie going. All four of her failed relationships with otherworldly Tivian’s had been utter failures.
“You won’t actually be alone, you know,” Peni commented as he twisted and pulled Jenika into his lap. He smiled at the way she squawked and lightly hit him in the chest. “Your brother Cholan is there.”
“He was,” Exie agreed. “I never…”
“You never checked on him?” Jenika asked, surprised horror on her face that showed brilliantly in Exie’s magic light. “In all that time?”
Exie winced. They were right. She knew that they were both right. All along she’d known that this was the wrong path to take. Maybe this was what the Goddess had wanted when she’d dropped Exie in Jenika’s lap. A forceful reminder that Exie wasn’t truly alone in the universe probably was deserved, maybe even desperately needed.
Between the two of them, Peni and Jenika truly were what she’d asked for. Jenika’s kindness was a balm on Exie’s healing soul. Peni saw past all of Exie’s justifications and made her realize how much she’d been lying to herself. Exie sighed as she stared up at the stars overhead. The constellations were different from what she expected. Two moons shimmered as the rose above the cliff face. A river of stars wended its way across the sky, bright and beautiful.
“I ran away,” Exie murmured.
“Peni, be polite,” Jenika huffed.
“No, he’s right,” Exie said. She looked at the two of them. “He’s right. He should be harsh with me. I had duties and I abandoned them instead of doing what I should have. Cholan would be perfectly justified if he broke my nose when I got home.”
Peni snickered, tucking Jenika’s head under his chin. It made Jenika smile and hug him, pleasure quite obvious in the curl of her toes where they peeked out from under her dress. His raised eyebrow made Exie cock her head curiously.
“If he’s anything like me then he will,” Peni said.
“No, he’s more like Jenika,” Exie laughed in spite of herself. “Gentle, kind, loving. He’s my opposite in so many ways.”
“Then he’ll hug you and cry his eyes out,” Jenika declared. She shook her head in dismay when both Peni and Exie winced. “The two of you, so ridiculous. Come inside. I’ve made dinner and I don’t want it to get cold.”
She pulled out of Peni’s arms and stood looking down at him until he stood. When she looked at Exie there was a sort of determination there that made Exie take a half step backwards while nodding urgently. Jenika smiled and nodded once before walking back to the cave. Peni gestured for Exie to precede him. She snorted and waved for him to do so instead.
“Now,” Jenika said without even looking over her shoulder.
Both Exie and Peni hurried after her, sharing a grin that felt almost like home. Dinner was a simple stew served in wooden bowls. It was accompanied by more of the flat bread that Jenika had given Exie at lunch. Both Peni and Jenika looked at her strangely when Exie scooped her stew onto the bread and ate it rolled up but Exie didn’t care. It worked. Actually, it was faster and neater given the new skin on Exie’s aching hands. Less scooping and dipping was a good thing as far as she was concerned.
“You are healing very quickly,” Jenika observed once they were done eating.
“True,” Exie sighed. “I still ache. I probably will for a couple of days. What was I wearing when I got here? I don’t understand how I got so badly burned.”
Jenika started giggling while Peni dissolved into belly laughs that echoed through the cavern. It took a minute before Exie smiled at the two of them. The clothes she’d been wearing had been good so she didn’t know how she’d been burned that way. Eventually Jenika pointed to Exie’s second best pair of boots by the entrance to the cavern, the ones that were barely ankle-high.
“You were wearing what you are now plus those boots,” Exie said. “Though you did have a death shroud wrapped around you.”
“That’s all?” Exie asked. Her cheeks smarted from the force of her blush. “What happened to my pants? My shirt? That jacket was practically brand new! And, and my best boots! What happened to my best boots?”
“You were very sun addled,” Peni observed. “I can check the graveyard to see if you stripped up there for some reason.”
“Maybe it was part of the vision you had?” Jenika suggested with a thoughtful expression. She looked at the altar and its many goddess statues before looking back at Exie. “You did mention seeing the Goddess.”
Peni looked at Exie too but his expression as far more foreboding, as if he wanted to forbid Exie from speaking about it at all. She sighed and shrugged only to wince as the movement pulled the skin on her back. Hopefully by morning she wouldn’t hurt quite so badly.
“What did you see?” Peni asked. “It might give me a better idea of where to look for your clothes.”
“I doubt it,” Exie said. “But… well. I was walking the path through a forest, thinking that I needed to find someone like Tivian. Someone kind and smart who would kick my ass when I was being stupid. It was nearly a prayer.”
“That was a mistake,” Peni observed.
“I know,” Exie sighed. “Never pray on the paths to infinity. It invites all sorts of trouble.”
“But what happened?” Jenika asked, flapping a hand at Peni to make him hush.
Exie laughed at Peni’s offended expression. The bed’s blankets had been changed to something less sticky but they were still harsh on her skin. She tried not to move very much despite her amusement at Peni catching Jenika in his arms so that he could tickle her sides. It hurt to see someone who looked so like Tivian laugh in another person’s arms but seeing someone so like Cholan doing it eased the pain amazingly well. Only once Jenika kissed Peni until he stopped tickling did Exie go on with her story.
“Now that the tickles are done,” Exie said, her grin making both Peni and Jenika blush, “I’ll continue. I lost the path.”
“Ow,” Peni groaned. “No wonder you were addled when you got here.
“Mm-hmm,” Exie agreed. She smiled at Jenika’s curious look. “It always hurts when you lose focus that way. I ended up on a rocky, sandy plain with three suns overhead. I think it must have been the sun and two moons in reality. There was nothing living around me besides insects and snakes but when I turned there was a woman standing there watching me. She looked like Tivian but her dress was unfamiliar to me. She gave me a scarf, the one with four red bands in the selvage, and told me to follow her.
“The world seemed to shift around me as I walked in her path,” Exie murmured, her eyes on the altar rather than Peni’s surprised look and Jenika’s awed one. “It felt like a dozen paces before the Goddess warned me to watch the first step. She led me down a steep path into a gorge. It was ah, shaped rather like a woman’s private parts.”
Both Peni and Jenika stared at her, Jenika erupting into giggles that made Exie groan. Peni’s stare was far more serious. He apparently could see the Goddess’ work in what she’d experienced. Exie waited until Jenika got her giggles under control before continuing.
“When I got to the end of the canyon there was a fountain,” Exie said, making the shape of the gorge with her fingers and pointing to the tip where she’d thought the cave rested. “I drank from it at the Goddess’ request. She touched my shoulder but it was Jenika who guided me into the cave.”
“Was the cave in the position I think it was?” Peni asked in a tone that made it clear he didn’t really want to ask the question.
Exie nodded. She chuckled along with Jenika’s giggles at the horrified expression on Peni’s face. He sighed and waved at Exie before looking at the altar. Jenika stilled, looking at the altar too. After a moment she looked back at the path out of the cavern before staring at Exie in awe.
“The Goddess brought you here to be reborn!” Jenika gasped. “You’ve shed your past life, cast off the trappings of your previous path, been nurtured within the Goddess’ womb and bathed in the holy waters. You’ve even got new skin, Exie. You’ve been reborn at the Goddess’ hand!”
Whatever the details of Peni and Jenika’s beliefs, Exie had to agree with Jenika. She had almost literally been reborn. The strange part as far as Exie was concerned was that her pain at the loss of Tivian seemed so much less than it had been before she’d ended up here. But when she looked back over the last couple of years, especially the time she spent with Benella, Exie could see that she’d been healing all along.
When Tivian died the pain had been so bad that Exie hadn’t been sure if the next breath would be her last. It had felt like being stabbed through the heart. The tiny candle holders they’d bought together for their first Festival of Lights had made Exie cry. When she smelled lavender and roses it had nearly made Exie scream. Laundry flapping slowly on the line behind their house had driven Exie to her knees despite Cholan’s tearful hug.
But Benella’s roses only reminded Exie of thorns and steam. Her candles were thick things kept for light, not for religious reasons. The complicated rituals of Benella’s church had annoyed Exie rather than fascinated her. Now, in another world with another version of Tivian, Exie found herself thinking of home with curiosity and anticipation instead of dread.
“I think she kicked me in the back of the skull,” Exie finally said. “I’ve spent the last five years avoiding anything that reminded me of home. Now…”
“You want home,” Peni finished when Exie’s words ran out.
“Then go,” Jenika said so kindly that Exie smiled at her despite the ache of her burned cheeks. “In the morning, of course. You should get a good night’s sleep first.”
Exie laughed and shook her head as she stood. “No, I spent all day sleeping, Jenika. I don’t need any more sleep. Besides, if I go now I won’t get sun addled.”
Her bag had spare clothes, pants that she’d bought before arriving in Benella’s world. They were hugely baggy, barely staying on her hips even with the laces cinched tight, but that was fine. It was less to rub on her overly sensitive skin. A spare shirt from three worlds back was loose enough and soft enough not to make Exie’s breath hiss between clenched teeth from the pain. At the very bottom of her bag Exie found an ancient pair of socks that were threadbare and loose. They sufficed under her second best pair of boots.
Peni watched, arms wrapped around Jenika as Exie dressed. While Jenika looked worried about Exie, Peni looked sad. To Exie’s magical senses, he felt as though he was grieving her loss. Exie smiled at him as she slid her bag carefully over her shoulder again. The strap was painful on her shoulder but her unburned hip took the weight without complaint.
“Walk with me for a bit?” Exie asked.
“You come right back home!” Jenika snapped at Peni, stabbing him with a finger in the chest. “I don’t want you going wandering, Peni. This is where you belong.”
“He won’t,” Exie said as Peni opened his mouth but didn’t say anything. They both blinked at her. “He has an anchor here, Jenika. He’s got a reason to come back.”
Jenika blushed, ducking her head to hide her embarrassed smile behind a waterfall of smooth black hair. Peni nodded his thanks for that, murmuring something that Exie couldn’t hear. It seemed to reassure Jenika because she hugged him, pressed a kiss against his lips and then began gathering up their dinner plates.
“Go on then,” Jenika said. “And if your travels ever bring you back this way, you’re welcome, Exie.”
“Thank you,” Exie said.
She gave Jenika a formal little bow that made her huff and blush even harder. Peni walked at her side as they left the cavern and returned to the night sky with its river of stars overhead. The path to infinity seemed so much more like a tether pulling her home that Exie put one hand over her heart. This time it felt like something was actively pulling her towards home instead of just gently tugging.
“You’re ready,” Peni observed.
“Did you wander?” Exie asked. “After your sister died?”
“Yes,” Peni sighed. He walked along the base of the cliff, away from the village and its blessed waterfall. “I never settled, never tried to find another place to live. There was always Jenika waiting for me. But I spent more time away than I did at home the first year.”
“It’s hard,” Exie sighed as well. The hand wrapped around her bag’s strap ached from the strength of her grip. “I always knew this was the wrong choice. I knew. I couldn’t deal with the emptiness back home.”
Peni nodded as if he truly understood that. He looked over his shoulder, prompting Exie to look too. Jenika stood by the entrance of the cave, her pale dress a smudge in the darkness, barely visible. When he turned back, Exie put one hand on his shoulder to keep him from following her.
There were a thousand things she wanted to say about taking care of Jenika, cherishing the time he had with her but Exie knew that she didn’t need to say them. Peni knew. His eyes were filled with that many and more about cherishing Exie’s connection to Cholan and keeping him safe. He put one hand over Exie’s, squeezing gently out of respect for her tender skin.
“If you do wander back this way…” Peni said, the words hopeful even though his expression was sad.
“You too.” Exie nodded and let go.
Peni stepped back, the darkness making his face fade into invisibility almost immediately. His magic stayed quiescent inside of him as Exie let her power sweep outwards. The shower of sparkles that normally weren’t visible shimmered like fallen stars around Exie. Around them, the night shifted from mundane to mystical.
The cliff face gleamed red and gold, reflecting Exie’s magic as if it was made of mica. Her every movement made light dance. Underneath her boots the sand shimmered more quietly, promising so much beauty that Exie nearly danced just to see dust swirl up around her, adding more light to the magic.
Cactus that appeared dull and prickly in the daylight glimmered with trails of reflected color, gold and green and brilliant purple picked out in fine stitches along the needles. Even the night sky overhead seemed to dance in time with the movement of Exie’s magic. She laughed, hands held palms up as a thanks to the Goddess for kicking her into this world instead of another one. Wonder and healing wrapped up in one place was worth more than a few prayers.
“You have a beautiful world, Peni,” Exie said without looking over her shoulder at him.
“I’m sure you do too,” Peni chuckled. “Go home, Exie. Hug your brother. Thank the Goddess. Live.”
She looked, chuckling that his face was hidden in shadow but his pride and satisfaction still showed in his arms crossed over his chest and the wide, confident spread of his feet. Exie nodded as she opened herself up to the path. Where it had come slowly and almost reluctantly when Exie left Benella, this time the path surged at Exie.
The aleya danced in front of Exie as if overjoyed to be allowed to lead her home. Exie walked forward, her mind full of the sound of Cholan singing as he washed dishes after dinner. She could smell the lavender their neighbor grew, the great bushes thrusting their purple blossoms out at passersby as if demanding that they appreciate the scent. Rain from the ever-present storms that swept down from the mountains seemed to brush across Exie’s cheeks as she first walked, then trotted and then finally ran along the paths towards home.
It would be summer back home, when the great white stone walls of the town’s buildings reflected the heat until every street was an oven. At this time of night the heat would only just have begun to break. Cholan and their neighbors would be rising from their afternoon naps to do evening chores. Someone would be singing the Lament of Summer. Someone always was at this time of year.
The path shifted and moved under Exie’s feet, worlds passing like flickering pages of a book she didn’t want to read. Desert gave way to forest gave way to streets with mud-walled huts. The huts changed to wooden houses, then to mud-brick blocks that became granite and then finally fine-veined white marble.
Exie stumbled as the path abruptly ended, depositing her on the street that led back to her home. The darkness didn’t let her see the things that had to have changed. All she could see were the things that were the same. Lavender and dust filled the air as Exie panted. What she could see of the neighbors’ yards were dry and brown. Light filled the windows as she passed. She could hear low-voiced conversation behind the various doors and curtains, not that Exie cared about what anyone else was saying.
Her home, Cholan’s home, was there. While she was gone he’d planted a new banana tree in the front. It was barely taller than she was, the fronds brushing against Exie as she slowly approached the front door. Laundry hung on the line, a man’s clothing mixing with a tall woman’s as well as diapers for a baby. In the evening gloom she couldn’t tell what colors the clothing had, what gender the baby might be from the green or orange of its clothing, not that she really cared.
“He married,” Exie breathed with awe as she stared at the diapers. “Cholan’s married.”
It was something that she hadn’t expected even though she should have. Cholan was far too sweet a boy to stay unmarried for long. With Exie gone he must have had dozens of suitors. He’d been very popular before the plague even though he’d been underage.
The front door creaked, prompting Exie’s heart to leap and then pound wildly. Long instinct made her expect Tivian but the instinct was worn down with the passage of time. The shadow that appeared wasn’t female at all, telling Exie who it was before the door opened all the way.
“I know, I know,” Cholan complained tiredly. He was looking over his shoulder at his wife so he didn’t see Exie. “We’ll figure something out. We don’t have much of a choice, now do we?”
When she left Cholan was breast high, chubby and shy. Now he was as tall as Exie with the same rangy long limbs that Exie had always hated. His shoulders were wider and when he whipped around his face was much thinner that she’d remembered. The resemblance to Peni was strong but Cholan’s eyes were wide and open where Peni’s had been faintly to severely suspicious.
“Exie?” Cholan whispered.
“I’m back,” Exie said. “If you’ll have me, of course.”
“Exie!” Cholan shouted.
He launched himself at Exie, grabbing her for a hug that made Exie gasp and curse from the pain of her burns. Cholan didn’t let go, didn’t stop babbling prayers of thanks mixed with curses at Exie for staying away so long. She hissed at him, panting at the pain but unwilling to shove him away after so long apart.
Behind Cholan, his wife stared at Exie. She was as tall as Exie, with the sort of broad shoulders and heavily muscled arms that came from long warrior practices. Her hair had been shaved off, leaving a dark scalp that gleamed in the light from the house. One hand rested on her sword as if she wanted to chop Exie into little bits. Exie couldn’t blame her for the anger. Cholan had been alone for entirely too long
Eventually Cholan pulled back long enough to notice the burns on Exie’s face. His eyes went wide despite Exie’s wry smile. She could barely make out his expression but hers had to be perfectly visible in the light from the house. He raised a hand that fluttered over her cheek like a startled butterfly only to huff and glare at her.
“What happened to your face?” Cholan demanded as he hauled Exie into the house by her wrist despite Exie hissing at the pain.
“Bad sunburn,” Exie explained. “Cholan, that hurts!”
He stopped, letting her go on the threshold. When he looked up and down Exie there was an obvious question as to just how much of her was burned. Exie shrugged and then winced as it made the skin on her back stretch painfully. Cholan’s wife narrowed her eyes at Exie so suspiciously that Exie wanted to raise an eyebrow at her but focusing on Cholan was more important right now.
“How badly are you burned?” Cholan asked, hands on hips.
“I’ll be fine in a couple of days,” Exie protested automatically. “I’ve already taken potions for that and the snake bite.”
“What snake bite?” Cholan squawked only to wince when his wife huffed at him while peering into the house. “Exie, you are never-ending levels of trouble.”
“But I’m still your sister,” Exie said, grinning despite the pain in her cheeks. “And you love me.”
That made Cholan roll his eyes but he was grinning at the same time. Thankfully, it did seem to help Cholan’s wife calm down though the hostility was still there. Cholan reached out and tugged a lock of Exie’s hair just like he’d used to when he was a baby. It made tears well up in Exie’s eyes. How had she stayed away for so long?
“Even when you’re impossible,” Cholan agreed.
“I am sorry,” Exie said, her words coming out thick with tears. “I just couldn’t…”
Cholan pulled Exie into another hug that was long, gentle and more than enough to make tears spill over for the first time in ages. She clung to him, almost missing his smaller frame and chubby body but that was ridiculous. It was Cholan, her little brother, the one who’d wrapped the flower garlands around her and Tivian’s wrists. He’d grown up. Missing his maturation, his marriage, all these years, was Exie’s fault, not anyone else’s.
“I know,” Cholan whispered. “I know. I don’t blame you, Exie. I’m just glad you’re home.”
6. New Life
Cholan pulled back, smiling at Exie. There were tears in his eyes too. Exie breathed a laugh as she dashed the tears away. Really, she’d been an idiot to stay away for so long. How could she have abandoned Cholan for so many years when he’d stood by her through everything life had thrown at them?
“Come inside,” Cholan said. “We should talk. Things have changed.”
“After this long, I’m not surprised by that,” Exie sighed. “I really am sorry.”
“Are you sure about this?” Cholan’s wife demanded in such a hostile voice that Exie stayed on the doorstep instead of going inside as Cholan indicated. “How are we going to afford another mouth?”
“It’s not a problem, Avery,” Cholan huffed. “You don’t understand. Exie isn’t another mouth to feed. She’s family.”
Avery glared at Exie as if ‘family’ was a curse word that was worse than any blasphemy. It made Exie wonder what sort of family she’d come from, not that it was any of Exie’s business. Yet. If they turned out to be too horrible then Exie would take steps to make sure that they didn’t bother Cholan and Avery but for the moment it wasn’t an issue to address.
“I’m a mage,” Exie said with a shrug that made her hiss and wince. “Damn these burns! My whole body feels like the skin’s been peeled right off.”
For whatever reason, that made Avery let loose a single bark of laugher. She didn’t look pleased about allowing Exie into their home but she did take her hand off the hilt of her sword. Cholan relaxed a little bit, feeling to Exie’s gifts as though he was hugely relieved that they weren’t fighting. Exie bowed respectfully to Avery before stepping inside the house.
She was braced for a wave of memories of all the things she’d done with Tivian in the house. Their courtship had been out in the town but their married life had been lived right here, inside these four walls. Exie shut her eyes involuntarily as she remembered cuddling with Tivian on their hammock made for two. The house should smell of Tivian’s fragrant lotions, backed by the more acidic smells of Exie’s potion ingredients drying as they hung from the rafters.
When she opened her eyes nothing familiar greeted her. The hammock was gone, replaced by a threadbare rug with two hassocks that listed to one side. Instead of beautiful rugs hung up to brighten the room, the walls were bare. Their grandmother’s collection of fine glass jars was gone from its shelf by the window. Even the table in the kitchen was different, no longer big and sturdy enough to hold Tivian’s weight plus all their spell components.
Instead there was a rickety old table that had one leg that was visibly shorter than the others. The stools tucked under it looked equally fragile. Exie frowned. She hadn’t expected that Cholan would have sold their belongings. His magical gifts must never have matured, leaving him far worse off than she had believed he could ever be. Guilt made her rub her breastbone absently. The only bit of color besides the threadbare carpet was the baby’s hammock slung in the corner of the room.
“We… had to make some choices,” Cholan said so guiltily that Exie huffed at him.
“Don’t apologize for that,” Exie scolded him. “I’m sorry I didn’t come home sooner. Once I started running I couldn’t stop, at least until the Goddess kicked me in the back of the skull.”
“Literally?” Avery asked.
She sounded like she approved of that thought. It made Exie grin at her despite the pain in her cheeks. When Exie shrugged and nodded confirmation, Avery swallowed a laugh while Cholan looked shocked.
“Close enough,” Exie said. “That’s part of where the burns came from, frankly.”
“You actually saw the Goddess?” Cholan asked, eyes wide when Exie looked at him.
“I did,” Exie sighed. “And she dropped me in the lap of one of your world-twins who was kind enough to metaphorically kick my ass for being an idiot without actually kicking me. He’d lost his sister much like I’d lost Tivian. He was… heh, he was just what I needed when I needed it. So. I’m home.”
“I still don’t know how we’re going to do this,” Avery complained.
“What’s wrong?” Exie asked.
Cholan sighed so tiredly that Exie frowned at him. His eyes flicked towards the little hammock with their child. Exie could just see the green swaddling cloth wrapping the baby, telling her that it was a girl. The baby was exceptionally quiet, not making noises or snuffling in its sleep. When Exie moved in that direction Avery stiffened so dramatically that Exie would have thought that Avery expected Exie to attack the child.
To Exie’s surprise, Cholan didn’t try to soothe Avery. Instead he lightly struck her shoulder despite the fact that he was obviously the one who tended for the home while his wife was as much a warrior as Exie was a mage. She huffed at him, glaring defiantly while rubbing her shoulder in offense.
“Stop that, Avery,” Cholan complained. “Exie’s family! She can help.”
“You’re sure it’s her?” Avery asked. “Really certain? Not some fake come to try and take your sister’s place in our lives.”
“Of course I am,” Cholan said, exasperation obvious in his frown and the clench of his hands on his hips. “It’s Exie. I’d know my sister anywhere.”
Avery glared at Exie. The sheer ferocity of her anger made Exie wonder wildly for a moment just what Cholan had gone through while she was away. Had he been on the verge of losing the house? Had people abused him? For that matter, how had the two of them met and what sort of relationship did they have?
She could feel quiet love for Avery underneath Cholan’s surface irritation. Avery’s anger was so strongly protective that Exie had to believe that they truly loved one another despite how different they were. Exie wouldn’t have expected Cholan to end up with someone like Avery but they did seem drawn towards each other and there was their daughter to consider, too.
“Why’d you leave?” Avery asked. “Why did you abandon Cholan? He needed you and you left him behind without a thought!”
“Do you love Cholan?” Exie asked even as she nodded that Avery had a very valid point.
“Of course I do!” Avery snarled at Exie, her hand back on her sword hilt.
“Did he tell you about Tivian?” Exie asked more quietly because talking about Tivian was never going to be easy. “About the plague? About burying her on the anniversary of the day we were married? Did he tell you how many times I tried to kill myself during the week she lay waiting for the Goddess to take her soul away before the burial? That I wouldn’t eat? Couldn’t sleep? That smelling the lavender up the road made me throw up and scream in the street while scratching bloody tracks down my face and arms?”
Avery flinched and looked away. Her grip on her sword hilt tightened for a moment only to drop entirely as her shoulders slumped. Cholan hugged Avery, murmuring something that Exie could have heard if she wanted to use her magic a bit more strongly. She didn’t. This was Exie’s sister-in-law. Hopefully someday, after Exie had settled back into her proper world and proper life, she’d be a sister-in-heart as well.
“That was…” Avery sighed and shrugged. “I apologize.”
“It was justified,” Exie said, smiling wryly as Cholan stared at her. “Let’s just say that the Goddess truly did give me a well-deserved kick to the back of the skull, little brother. I’m home. Can I help with anything?”
“Got any medicine in that bag of yours?” Avery asked as if she expected to be told no.
“Who needs help and what for?” Exie asked.
Cholan laughed as Avery stared. His laughter startled the baby awake, making it wail high and thin as if its lungs weren’t quite right. Exie frowned as she went to the rickety kitchen table. The baby’s crying was entirely too much like what had happened during the plague. Hopefully she hadn’t returned in time for another round of the dying that had taken Tivian away. The baby quieted to whimpers when Cholan picked it up, gently swaying with it in his arms, but Exie could tell that something was definitely wrong.
“I’ve got potions for defeating illnesses and strengthening the body,” Exie said as she fished that pouch out of her bag. “Plus I’ve got money to buy ingredients to make whatever else the baby needs. I can make more targeted potions easily enough. That was my major area of study, after all. And if I can’t help I know I’ve got enough money to buy someone else’s help.”
“We can’t take your money,” Avery protested even though she looked as though the sheer promise of more money in the household was lifesaving.
Cholan bit his lip, looking at Exie so hopefully that Exie pulled her bag off, opening the flap so that she could take the money out. It had been a long time since she’d done anything with the money she’d earned along the way. Benella’s poverty and fear of magic had prevented Exie from using both her magic and the money she’d saved up along the way. Not to mention that something inside of Exie had told her that giving any money to Benella might mean waking up to a knife slitting her throat. The necklace and jewels had been presented as heirlooms saved from her mother’s inheritance.
The individual coins would be strange here, with unknown writing and unfamiliar faces, but Cholan had to have told people that she’d left. They’d expect Exie to come back with strange money. At worst, when they tried to use the coins they’d be treated as bullion to be weighed and assessed instead of coins with an assigned value.
“I’ve got more money than I know what to do with,” Exie said as she put the nixie fruit, apples and meat buns in the center of the table. “Better that it get used than that it sits in my bag doing nothing.”
“No, we really can’t,” Avery protested even as Cholan tried to hush her.
Exie snorted as she pulled out silver and gold by the double-handful, letting it cascade carelessly over the table top. Several coins tumbled down to the floor to tinkle and roll, chiming in the growing night. As the single oil lamp in the kitchen flickered, Exie made a mage light over her head so that she could see properly to pull out every single coin. The stack was inches deep once she was done, covering nearly a foot of space on the table. The necklace, earrings and ring that she’d made for Benella shimmered at the top of the stack.
Avery had scrambled for the dropped coins until she realized that Exie had more money. As the stack grew, she stared, her breath coming in harsh pants. Cholan had sounded pleased when the first double-handful emerged from Exie’s bag. By the time she dropped the necklace and it’s matching jewels on top he had a mournful expression on his face, as if he knew just how hard she’d worked and just how little joy she’d allowed herself.
“This… how?” Avery asked, her voice an octave higher from shock.
“I worked,” Exie said. “I wanted to find a place, a person, who could replace Tivian. I didn’t. I couldn’t. Nothing could replace her, no matter how hard I looked. I did find work, lots of that, and it paid pretty well up until the last place I stayed. But I didn’t have anything to spend the money on.
“Without Tivian, I couldn’t make myself care about buying anything,” Exie continued more slowly, sadness dragging her words out though the pain of Tivian’s loss didn’t stab her as she still expected. “So I just… saved it all. Five years of a mage’s wages adds up to quite a lot. Consider it a wedding present, with interest since I missed the wedding itself. And a baby gift, too. I don’t need it. I don’t want it, honestly. It’s yours now, yours and Cholan’s.”
Avery’s breath caught. She dropped into a crouch as a desperate keen worked its way through her clenched teeth. To Exie’s surprise, Cholan passed the baby to her so that he could kneel and hug Avery. Exie smiled at the way they whispered to each other, shrugging the shoulder the baby wasn’t resting against.
“Well, let’s see what I can do for you, little one,” Exie murmured to her. “Hopefully your old auntie has something that will make you feel better.”
The baby had Avery’s wide eyes and Cholan’s fuzzily auburn hair. It stared at Exie gravely, breathing through an open mouth with tears in its eyes. Exie chuckled and kissed the baby’s forehead. She could feel a tiny response from the baby, just enough to tell her that this was a child who would someday see the paths to infinity, who would someday use magic just as Exie did.
“We can’t take all of it,” Avery said, shaking as she stood. “It wouldn’t be right to take all your money.”
“You’re my sister now,” Exie replied as she scanned the baby’s heart and lungs for the source of the problem. “You’re my little brother’s beloved wife. Don’t fuss over it. Besides, I’ll make more quickly enough. Mages are always paid well. Hmm, looks like a pretty straightforward cold. Shouldn’t take much to fix it.”
“But…” Avery spluttered only to stop when Exie smiled wryly at her.
“You took care of my little brother after I ran way,” Exie said, slowly rocking her niece and future apprentice. “That counts for far more than this, Avery. Don’t worry about it. Mages always do well with money. I don’t need the coins. I just need my family back.”
Cholan laughed, high and sweet and so much like he used to before the plague came through, looping an arm around Exie’s shoulders. His kiss on Exie’s cheek was equal parts pain and pleasure. Exie smiled at him.
“Welcome home, Exie,” Cholan said. “Welcome home.”
“Thank you, Cholan,” Exie said, kissing his cheek fondly.
When she looked at Avery the anger and confusion was there in her expression and aura but it was matched by a sense of desperate hope that Exie couldn’t help but smile sadly at. Later, after the baby’s cold had been treated and she’d gone back to sleep, Exie would have to tell Cholan and Avery what she’d been doing.
And then, possibly tomorrow morning before the heat got too bad, Exie would ask them what had happened while she was gone. The world had turned in her absence, growing and changing while Exie had clung to a past that was gone. It hurt to think of walking away from her love for Tivian but it was time.
Time to move on. Time to help this new family, her new family, grow and prosper. Exie had walked the paths to infinity for long enough. Now it was time to settle in one place and plant her roots once more. Exie didn’t know if her thoughts showed on her face but Avery appeared to see something. She snorted while shaking her head at Exie. When she held out one hand it was her sword hand, hard and calloused.
“Welcome home,” Avery said, warnings and promises and guarded hope radiating off her.
“Thank you, Avery,” Exie replied as she shook her hand. “Now let’s take care of your daughter. Can’t let my future apprentice get worse, now can we?”
“Oh no!” Avery huffed while Cholan started laughing. “My little girl’s not going to be a mage. No, no, no! She’s going to be a warrior!”
Exie snickered as she dug through her bag for her medicine pouch. “You keep on believing that, Avery. You keep on believing. All I hope is that she ends up with Cholan’s temperament.”
As Cholan squawked in dismay, Avery grinned abruptly at Exie. “Now that I can agree with. So what can you do for her?”
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