For one sweet hour after the midday meal, Amèlia had no commitments. Queen Lora filled the rest of the Guardian’s days with a regimented schedule of exercise, education, and martial training, and practice with their newfound abilities, but this hour, she allowed them to have to themselves. Though Amèlia took great joy in everything she had learned under the instruction the Queen was providing for them, she struggled with the physical aspect of their training, at least when she compared herself to the others.

Ostensibly, this hour of freedom was meant for the Guardians to use as a time of rest. Several of the Guardians did just that, of course. Others used it as a time to relax together and build their relationships. Amèlia supposed she should be doing the same. Sometimes, she did. After all, by the Queen’s word, they would be working together for years to come. Today, Amèlia wanted only to escape and be by herself for a time.

A simple walk down a hallway now required every bit of concentration Amèlia could muster. Every time she passed close enough to another person, their emotions pressed upon her, threatening to supplant Amèlia’s own, should she let her guard down long enough to forget that the feelings stirring within her were foreign. She felt relieved that Andron’s emotions didn’t press on her consciousness as much or as often as other humans. With his constant presence, keeping their minds separate would be difficult.

With Andron constantly accompanying her and his influence affecting her in ways she had never experienced, Amèlia could never truly be alone again. Even now, his bodies coiled around her, pressing at the edge of her perception. She could almost feel his feathers against her skin. She had to remind herself, time and again, that she could not trip over him unless she pulled his body into physicality.

Amèlia sighed. «Andron,» she sent. «Why do you insist on wrapping yourself around me like that? It makes it difficult to walk.»

«I am not impeding you,» Andron sent.

«Not physically, no,» Amèlia said. «But I know you’re there, and it messes with my mind.»

A servant passed, going the opposite direction down the stone hallway. The broad windows here looked out across Lake Minas, giving a grand view. The servant’s emotions bled into Amèlia’s mind. Anxiety, frustration — intimidation, when she met Amèlia’s eyes. Amèlia gave the woman a smile as she tried to push the emotions away. Amèlia wanted to find a place where she didn’t have to feel other people’s feelings welling up inside of her.

«You must grow accustomed to my presence,» Andron explained. The voice he used in his sending echoed what she thought of as his real voice: three copies with the same timbre, which spoke with slightly different inflection and intonation. She felt a hint of his emotions. A single trickle, really, just enough to reveal all intents behind his sendings. «You have to learn to seperate the physical from the nonphysical.»

«I know,» she sent. She reached up to where one of his three heads coiled over her shoulder. Her fingers found his feathered neck, just behind the violet crest that extended behind his head. The feathers were smooth as silk. She stroked him, smiling inwardly. Her touch caused a part of him to manifest, solidifying his presence. She felt his true weight on her shoulder. Something about the motion reminded her of her family’s dog, though Andron’s form differed vastly: three serpents, covered in violet feathers, which wound constantly about one another. And, right now, Amèlia.

«I am not a pet,» Andron sent, alongside a trickle of irritation. Two of his heads turned their attention on her, one with gleaming golden eyes, the other with brilliant blue. «Why do you insist on treating me as such?»

«I don’t think of you as a pet,» Amèlia sent. «You know that. Humans just have a fondness for physical touch. How would you prefer I interact with you? You’re the one who’s wrapped around me.»

Amèlia nodded to another servant, a woman who emanated strong embarrassment. Amèlia tried to still her face. She didn’t want to somehow embarrass the woman further, even though she felt compelled to try to aid her somehow.

«Hmph,» Andron sent. Still, he allowed her to scratch behind his head, even going so far as to send a thread of contentment to her in response. He had much finer control over what he sent and received through their connection than she did, as was to be expected. For him, the power was innate. Amèlia thought of herself only as borrowing it.

«I’m glad that I figured out sending,» she sent, glancing at a another servant passing by, a man who felt focused and content. «The others feel silly when they talk to their companions in public.»

«Yes, in human culture it’s considered odd to speak aloud to oneself in the presence of others,» Andron sent. «It’s so much harder to keep secrets when speaking that way, too. I don’t know how you do it.»

«You think so?» Amèlia sent, amused. «I find that when I’m sending to you, it’s much harder to hide the feelings behind what I’m saying.»

«I meant that sending is more private,» Andron sent. «It’s much superior to whispering.» One of his heads slid over her shoulder, the one with the stunningly blue eyes. «In time, you will learn to send to other beings than myself. You will learn how to send only which emotions you intend them to perceive. Perhaps then you will truly appreciate how much better it is than speech.»

«Perhaps,» Amèlia sent, sending ample doubt alongside her reply. “But I wouldn’t want to forget how to use my voice.” With the hall around her empty, she felt confident enough to speak aloud.

She could still feel the presence of others within the castle. Like the light of distant stars, the minds of others shone on hers, revealing their locations and, at a distance, faint hints of their emotions. She had not yet determined the limit of her range for detecting others. It was not infinite. The thought of it being so made her shudder. To sense the minds of every being on Aia would be horrifying.

The minds of the other Guardians shone stronger to her than any others. She didn’t know if that was because she felt a stronger connection to them than others here, or some other reason. As she understood from the Queen and Andron’s explanations, the Guardians and their companions were one being. Perhaps the presence of two minds bound together made them easier for Amèlia to detect. If she turned and focused her mind, she could have pointed in the direction of any one of the Guardians, though at her current distance, she couldn’t tell for certain who she was indicating.

Curiously, most of the time, she could get no sense of Queen Lora at all. At range, she wouldn’t have been able to distinguish the Queen’s mind from others regardless, but even when they stood in the same room, Amèlia felt nothing. Even Andron had commented that the Queen’s control over her own mind must be stronger than his own. It seemed to Amèlia that the rare occasions she had felt even a hint of an emotion from Queen Lora had been due to the Queen’s intent.

Amèlia attempted to find a direction that lead her away from everyone else, but the castle was full enough that she felt she’d never escape the spheres of influence people projected.

«Queen Lora employs quite a number of people here,» Andron sent. «I doubt you’ll be able to find anywhere to be alone.»

Amèlia frowned. «Are you reading my thoughts, Andron? I don’t remember telling you my goal.»

«Yes,» Andron said. «In a way, at least. Unless you’re sending to me directly, I have no real sense of exact words and phrases, but in general, I know what you’re thinking.»

“Can you maybe not do that?” Amèlia requested. “Sometimes I just want to think to myself.”

«I suppose I could try,» Andron sent, with doubt and mild irritation interlaced. «We are so close that not touching your mind seems nearly impossible.»

“Fine,” Amèlia said. “I’ll just get used to it.”

She gave up the conversation, because one of the minds she sensed suddenly felt more important. At the edges of where she could begin to feel emotions, something dark and heavy called to her. She quickened her pace. The person she felt emanated a sadness that weighed on Amèlia’s mind like a stone.

«I feel it, too,» Andron said. «Where is that within the castle? I feel that it is toward the edge of the cliff, but I don’t know how to get there.»

Amèlia shook her head. She didn’t know, either. If Andron could get a vague sense of her thoughts without her sending to him directly, well, her knew what she felt. The pain of that person’s emotions coiled up in her mind as she focused on them, winding tightly together. She tried to keep them separate from her own, attempting to compartmentalize them, but she also had to focus on that person in order to try to find them. It made keeping the feelings from infecting her own difficult.

And oh, what awful pain that person felt. Amèlia felt it in her chest, throbbing, threatening to overwhelm her and bring her to her knees. Wave after wave of despair crashed over her. If Andron was right, and this person was standing on the cliff overlooking Lake Minas, Amèlia feared she knew their intent.

Amèlia found a staircase leading downward. She ran down it, for once grateful for all of the physical conditioning Queen Lora had been requiring of the Guardians as a part of their training. The stairs spiraled downward, narrow. Amèlia pushed her way past a servant carrying a basket of laundry, causing him to send out a burst of frustration. Without thinking, Amèlia sent back a wave of regret as an apology, which only confused him further.

The stairway took her down to the ground level, for which she was thankful. She had to pause and catch her breath, not because the run had taken it away, but because the awful power of the sadness she felt from the person she pursued had grown both stronger and closer. It nearly pulled her to the ground.

«This is most unpleasant,» Andron sent. «Elementals feel nothing that could ever compare to this. Humans are such storms of emotion.»

“This is not normal, Andron,” Amèlia said, lacking the strength to send. “This person needs help. We have to find them.”

«I agree,» Andron said. “Do not doubt my empathy. I was merely attempting to express my surprise.»

Amèlia took off down the hallway at a jog. “Am I headed the right direction, Andron?”

“Yes,” he replied, his voice echoing as though it struck the stone of the hall, despite his lack of physicality. His bodies slithered out in front of her, twisting and turning over one another even as they advanced before her. “This is the way.”

The despair grew more and more powerful as Amèlia approached it. It became so strong that it sickened her, forming a pit in her stomach that ground into her like a fist. She gritted her teeth. Her whole body felt as though knuckles of grief were working their way into her muscles.

A door. Ahead, at the end of the hallway, a door. If her mental map of where they were in the castle was correct, that door would lead outside. Two guards stood on either side of it, clad in leather and steel and Queen Lora’s coat of arms on a gray background.

“My lady, what is wrong?” one of them asked as she approached, shifting his hand toward his weapon.

“I must go outside,” Amèlia said desperately. “Please, open the door.” The despair pulsed, mere yards away.

“There is little out there of interest,” the other guard said. “I would fear for your safety, my lady. The castle sits very close to the cliff face here.”

“I will be fine,” Amèlia insisted. She drew upon the despair that she felt, and sent it forth, into the minds of the guards. “Do you feel that? There is someone out there who needs me.”

“Sweet Alrhea,” the first guard whispered, putting his hand to his chest. Amèlia immediately stopped reflecting the emotion on to him. “How…”

The second guard, whose eyes had filled with tears, motioned for her to exit. He turned away. Amèlia heard, and felt, his sobs begin.

Amèlia darted to the door. Yet, as her hand touched the handle, she felt what she had feared. The point of despair, that mind that had been overwhelmed by a depth of sadness Amèlia had never known, moved away from her. Swiftly downward it fell, until it passed out of the range at which she could sense even that powerful hurt. Then, as though someone had closed another door between them, she stopped sensing that mind at all.

Amèlia turned from the door. On weak, trembling legs, she walked away. She had failed.

«You cannot save everyone,» Andron sent. «This was not your fault. I will not allow you to blame yourself for it.»

Amèlia felt no need to reply.

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