Khari collapsed backward. She had just enough strength left to turn her fall into something that resembled lying down intentionally, if dramatically. She breathed, great, heaving, inhalations and exhalations that warped her entire torso with their strength. The cool night air flowed through her. She pictured it fighting against the fire within, and losing.
The others had long since taken to their beds. Khari’s muscles quivered and ached. Her fingers twitched around the shaft of her spear. She had done everything the Queen had asked her to do, and it still felt like it wasn’t enough. She felt like a failure.
Khari tried to force herself into a seated position. She failed, the first time, her abdominal muscles refusing to do the work she still required of them. With a growl, she forced them to comply. She pulled her legs up toward her body and straightened her back. She needed to do this. Her Queen needed her to do this.
She wished it didn’t feel like everything that she struggled with had come so easily to the others. When the Queen had called them here, not a one of them had known what to expect. The other eight had been just as lost as Khari. Now she felt like they had found something she could not.
Khari’s breathing slowed. She brought her spear across her lap, closed her eyes, and placed her hands upon her knees. She opened her eyes again almost instantly. Though she had intended to attempt to look inward in meditation, the moment she allowed her eyes to shut, sleep had threatened to drag her under.
She could not find her companion. It seemed so easy for the others. Amèlia could already use her companion’s power, could already bring it partly into the world, even, if only in minor ways. Khari could not compare. She could barely tap her companion’s power well enough to bring a bit of heat between her palms, let alone produce a flame, which the Queen said should be possible. Yet Amèlia claimed to be sensing others’ thoughts, even when she made no effort.
Khari expelled her breath, hard, trying to blow away some of her thoughts. Jealousy toward Amèlia would do her no good. It would only foster discontent and drive a wedge in between them. Someday they would need to cooperate to protect their Queen. Khari could not allow herself to foster such division.
Senia, only now beginning to wax once more toward fullness, gave little light to the courtyard. No clouds occluded the moon, or the stars around her, yet with the moon so thin Khari sat in darkness. She didn’t wish to light any of the torches, lest someone be notified of her presence. She had pretended to go to bed with the rest of the future Guardians. Then she had snuck back to the training ground to practice with her spear. The others had their companions, but she had this: she could best any of them in a sparring match. If only she felt like that mattered.
Queen Lora would know of Khari’s failure. Khari hadn’t talked about it, but the other Guardians could see how little she had accomplished. If they could see, so could Lora. She didn’t need to see, if the stories were true. They said she knew everything. That the Holy One had inscribed the essence of the plan she had laid out with the Dark One in ages past directly into Lora’s mind. Lora had done nothing to disabuse the Guardians of that notion, and none of them had found the will to ask.
If it weren’t for her certainty that the binding had succeeded, Khari would wonder whether or not she belonged here at all. She thought back on that day. Events had passed her by so quickly; much of what she had seen, done, and heard had become a blur over the last month. Yet one image held clear in her mind, almost as though she had painted it upon the back of her eyes: her companion, seen in a flash before her as Lora had completed the binding.
Khari did not know its name. She had not yet been able to speak to it. She didn’t even fully understand if she was meant to grant it a name, or if it would tell her. The others hadn’t explained. Amèlia had been the first to discover her companion’s name. Khari would be the last.
Lora said that their companions were blessings from the Ennead. She said that, by the Holy One’s decree, each member of the Aurelian Ennead had been asked to chose a mortal to whom to confer a portion of their power. The companions, Lora said, were a manifestation of that power. They weren’t even truly their own beings, so much as extensions of the Guardian to whom they’d been bound, and connections to the Ennead’s divine power.
Khari remembered Lora’s words, but she had fought to try to comprehend them. What she did understand was that her companion was a boon from Maela, the goddess she revered as the bringer of warmth and summer, who her mother and her grandmother and on before her had worshipped. She felt she had been chosen for her faith.
She prayed to Maela now. “Goddess,” she whispered. “I thank you for the power you have granted me.” She spoke aloud, though she believed Maela would hear her thoughts, if she directed them in prayer. “I thank you for the chance to serve my Queen, and through her, your designs. I thank you for the blessing of my companion. I thank you for the warmth of my hearth, and the heat of my blood.” Khari took a breath. Maela respected power, strength, and bravery. To come to her in weakness, her grandmother had always said, was folly. One must give thanks to Maela for the boons she bestows; by doing that, she would only grant more.
Khari held her hands before her, palms turned toward each other, fingers held as though to cage a butterfly. She tried to reach within her, to harness the fire she knew was there. She grappled with it: she could tell it was there, she could feel it; she felt she could almost grab onto it. A heat blossomed beneath her palms. Khari strained, attempting to pull it forth. She could not even grip it.
“Lady of Summer, I must ask,” Khari said, though the words tried to stick in her throat. “I have fought hard to find the strength. I have tired my body and my mind, and yet I have not been able to connect to your gift. Please, I don’t ask you for strength. You have already given it to me. I don’t ask you for power. You have already given it to me. All I ask is that you help me find the way.”
“Do you think that she will answer you?”
Khari started. Her heart, which had been working fervently from her exercise and then calmed as she sat, leapt into action once more. For the briefest moment, she thought perhaps her companion had spoken to her. But no, that voice had been a human one, from the courtyard. Khari turned, abashed. “Hello, Amèlia.”
Amèlia approached. The swishing of her robe drowned out her soft footfalls. Her black hair, normally braided carefully into a crown, rippled down across her shoulders in a sleep-tangled mess. “I thought it must be you down here.”
“What do you mean?” Khari wondered if she had been louder than she’d thought while working through her forms with the spear. “Could you hear me practicing?”
“No, not really,” Amèlia said. She said down beside Khari, heedless of the effect the dirt of the practice yard might have on her soft nightclothes. “It’s more like I could feel you.”
“Oh,” Khari said. “Your power.”
“Yeah,” Amèlia said. “I get this sense of other people’s feelings. Almost like I’m feeling them myself, though I’ve learned how to sort them out. This time, I could sense where yours were coming from. Like a dowsing rod.”
“You learn quickly.” Khari bit her lip. She had been unable to hold the resentment out of her voice.
“I do,” Amèlia acknowledged. Somehow, she managed to sound humble. “Don’t take that as a mark against you. I don’t.”
Amèlia brought her knees to her chest. She did not reach out to touch Khari, or even turn to look at her, yet somehow her presence brought the same sort of comfort. At first, Amèlia had seemed distant to Khari. Compared to Khari’s family and friends from home, Amèlia felt disconnected. Over the weeks, Khari had realized that the way Amèlia showed friendship and affection just manifested differently from what Khari had experienced growing up.
“Thank you,” Khari said. Amèlia had said little, and it hadn’t even been that comforting, yet somehow it made Khari feel better.
Amèlia looked up at the sliver of Senia that shone silver in the night sky. “I’m used to learning new things,” she said, and though the words seemed non sequitur, Khari got the sense that this related to their conversation. “My mother is a teacher, and both her family and my father’s worship Quet. I wouldn’t say they’re devout, but they respect him, and they thank him for his knowledge. From what I’ve read of Maela, their worship is similar, in a way. They both encourage you to seek your own strength, and through that, you show your devotion.
“With Quet, learning is a sort of worship. You study something, or you learn how to do a task, or you seek to question the world around you. Then, when you pray, you thank Quet for the capacity and the opportunity to do those things. I’ve been studying and questioning my whole life. So, when Lora bonded us to our companions, I questioned mine. I studied and probed our connection. I analyzed what I could feel, and once I got a better sense of him, I asked him questions.”
“Are you saying you think I should be asking questions?” Khari asked. She felt the heat of her companion almost as a force within her chest, desiring release. No matter how hard she struggled to pull it forth, nothing happened. “I’ve tried it, a bit. I never got a response. Maybe I’m just asking the wrong ones. Do you think you could tell me what to ask?”
“I don’t think so,” Amèlia said. “I’ve talked with some of the others about it. I think it’s different for every one of us.”
“Okay,” Khari said. She had felt, for a moment, like Amèlia might be about to tell her some secret; like she might reveal the way for Khari to finally connect.
“Don’t feel defeated,” Amèlia said. Right. She could feel what Khari felt. “I think you just need to think about your companion’s aspect in a different way, so that you can figure out how to access your power.”
“Maela values strength and bravery,” Khari said. “I’ve been trying to show my companion that I’m strong.”
“Okay.” Nothing happened outwardly, but in brief flash, like a window opening and releasing a gust of air, Khari could feel Amèlia’s thoughtfulness as she searched for an answer. Somehow, she knew the emotion and its source as quickly and surely as though it were her own.
Amèlia didn’t seem to notice. “My companion’s aspect is the mind,” Amèlia continued. “I found my connection by thinking and questioning. Chelle is bound in service to Schiizar, so her companion’s aspect is earth. She found success by firmly grasping her power and bending it to her will.”
“That sounds like what I’ve been trying to do.”
Amèlia turned to glance over her shoulder. Once again, Khari felt a hint of her emotion, this time in the form of fleeting distraction.
“What is it?” Khari asked.
“It’s nothing,” Amèlia said. Her focus returned to Khari. “That worked for Chelle, but it might not work for you. Alana described her process as the complete opposite. She had to move with her power, letting it flow through her and guiding it gently, rather than by force.”
“That does sound like water,” Khari admitted.
“Right,” Amèlia said. “When you analyze everyone’s paths to success, it starts to make sense. In fact, it sounds almost simple, to say it out loud.”
“It’s not been simple for me,” Khari said.
“I know. It hasn’t been simple for most of us,” Amèlia said. “That’s not what I meant to imply. What I mean is, everyone struggled a bit at first. But once we found the right way, it just made sense.”
“So you think I’ve just been going about it the wrong way this whole time?” Khari flopped backward. Her fatigue, both physical and mental, wouldn’t allow her to hold herself upright anymore.
“Yes,” Amèlia said. “And I don’t say that bluntly to be unkind. In order to fix something, we first have to recognize that it’s broken.”
“It’s okay. I get it.”
“I talked to them because I wanted to understand them,” Amèlia said, “but also because I’ve been trying to figure out how to help you.”
“What?” Khari asked. She propped herself up on her elbows. “You didn’t have to do that. I should be figuring this out myself.”
“I say this out of respect, okay?” Amèlia said. “That’s the wrong way to go about it, too. We all need to learn how to work together. If we believe in our gods, and in our Queen, we have to learn to trust and help each other. I was too introspective at first. I didn’t think enough about the rest of you and how I could help you all find the same success I was having.” Amèlia reached out, then, and grasped Khari’s leg above the knee. Khari felt her… what was that emotion? Care? “I’m sorry for that.” Amèlia withdrew her hand.
“You don’t need to be sorry.” Despite her fatigue, Khari forced herself to sit up once again. “This is hard. It’s so new. None of us really know each other yet. None of us really get what we’re doing.” Khari smiled. “I thought you did, before just now. You seemed so self-assured, like you just knew exactly what to do, and like everything just made sense to you.” Khari grasped Amèlia’s hand in her own. “Thank you for coming to talk to me.” She left more unsaid. Knowing that Amèlia could feel what she felt made that seem okay. It meant she had less to communicate verbally.
“You’re welcome. Honestly.” Amèlia withdrew her hand. “I think you need to think about fire in a different way. In a more literal way, actually. Chelle has to push her power, because it’s earth, and we move earth by pushing. Alana has to move with her power and guide it gently, because it’s water. Reid has to cultivate his power, and nurture it, because it’s life. How do you control fire?”
“You don’t,” Khari said, after a moment’s thought. “Not really. You just let it burn.”
“Right,” Amèlia said. “You might start the fire, but nobody really controls it. I don’t think you can strongarm your power. I think you just have to let it go.”
Khari frowned. “Maela values strength, and courage, and bravery,” she said. “You want me just to give in?”
Amèlia shrugged. “Sometimes, strength is letting go. Sometimes bravery is letting go. In the right context, anything can be strength.”
Khari didn’t answer. She wanted to argue with Amèlia, because what Amèlia said went against the way Khari had been thinking for years. At the same time, she realized that her ingrained beliefs were the only reason she wanted to argue. What Amèlia said had its own logic. It made just as much sense, if not more, than Khari’s previous thoughts on the matter.
Khari stood up. Amèlia remained seated. Standing seemed easier, now, despite Khari’s exhaustion. She walked to the center of the courtyard. The heat inside her pulsed with her heart. Let it go. The words took on a new context. Khari had been trying to grab onto her power, to take it by the reins and force it to do what she wanted. She thought Maela would respect that, and that, as a connection to the goddess, so would her companion.
Now, she realized, she hadn’t just been fighting to force her power out. She had been struggling, unconsciously, to keep it in. The flame of her companion inside her pulsed in an effort to release itself. Its flame burned strong already. She didn’t need to stoke them.
In the center of the courtyard, Khari took a deep breath. Finding the will to release was, as Amèlia said, an act of strength. It reminded Khari of the time she’d nearly fallen from a tree. She had caught a branch as she fell past it. With sore wrists and fingers, she had gripped that branch with all of her strength. Below her, on the ground that had seemed so far away, her mother had called to her to let go. When she had finally listened, Khari had realized that the ground had been only a foot or two below her the entire time. The true act of strength had been forgoing her grip.
Khari exhaled. Nothing. Her personal barriers were hard, impacted by years of conscious and unconscious effort. She tried again. She pictured her fingers uncurling from that branch; the way her heart had seemed to leap upward, even as she fell; and the feeling of excitement she had felt, when she met the ground, yes, but also just in the freedom of the fall. Khari let go.
Heat and light burst from the air in front of her. No, from her, in a great gout of brilliant flame. It filled the space in front of her, lightning up the night, banishing the darkness more surely than the moon. The power roared out of her. A feeling of lightness and release filled Khari in its place. The heat of the fire felt good against her skin. It didn’t burn. It felt, instead, like a mother’s embrace.
Khari laughed with joy. The fire vanished, leaving an afterimage before Khari’s eyes. Within it Khari saw him once more: A great bird with gleaming plumage of red and gold, his wings spread in triumph, their long feathers trailing like tongues of flame. His blue eyes shone out, brighter even than the crown of burning stars that danced around his head. His gaze met hers. They saw each other, for the second time.
His name came into her head, spoken in her own voice. She knew not whether she thought it or he did. It didn’t matter. They shared one soul.
When the vision faded and the night returned, Khari spun. “Yes!” she exclaimed, casting her arms upward in celebration. She felt Din, now, pressing at the edge of her awareness. He had been there all along, she realized, ready to come forth, if only she could have let him.
Amèlia had arisen, at some point, behind her. She ran forward and brought Khari into a quick, tight embrace. The act surprised both of them; Khari knew, because Amèlia’s emotion bled into her once more.
“You did it,” Amèlia breathed. “You did it!” Amèlia’s emotions emanated from her like a strong, beautiful scent: Joy, pride, excitement, and relief. Khari could read them on Amèlia’s face, as well.
“Thank you,” Khari said. A grin had sealed itself on her face so surely it felt permanent.
Amèlia shook her head. “No need.” She took Khari’s shoulder and turned her. “Look.” And she waved upward at a balcony overlooking the courtyard.
There, on the balcony, stood the Queen. In the pale moonlight, Khari could barely perceive her, yet she knew instantly who the figure must be. Lora’s posture and silhouette had imprinted themselves upon Khari’s mind the day she met the woman. She had a power behind her that bled out into the world, pressing itself onto all around her in a way Khari had never before experienced.
“She is proud,” Amèlia whispered. “Proud, and… ah, I don’t have a word for the emotion. It’s the feeling you get when something expected comes to pass. Satisfied, perhaps.”
Khari didn’t try to answer. The strength of her grin had lessened at Amèlia’s revelation of their observer, though out of awe, not embarrassment or trepidation, as she might have expected herself to feel.
Lora nodded at the two of them before moving out of sight.
“Let’s go to bed, Amèlia,” Khari said. The events of the last few minutes had tamped down her exhaustion without erasing it. Now it lived inside her as a hard, quivering core that she feared might overtake her excitement at any moment. “I’ve keep you up far too late.”
Tomorrow, she could face the day feeling less like a failure and more like she belonged here after all.