Celene and Gaspard walked through the streets of Old Lrial, the light fading early. The rain had ceased falling now that they were in a city, but the ground remained damp underfoot as if it still wanted to melt its way into puddles. Celene worried about the Kings procession taking them through what was left of the slums. The buildings seemed all the more ramshackle after she saw how even the newer structures stood on stable foundations. She wondered about the people who lived in the slums, and what sort of life they led. Did their homes look like this one? Would anyone try to protect them from the plague once they came down with it?

”I can understand why no one wanted to take up your offer, ” she said. ”They probably thought you were insane. ”

Gaspard chuckled. ”Some may have thought that. Others…not so much. We have been the centre of legend and wonder for too long, Celene. To most people here, it will just be another of the stories they tell at night around the fire. It is not uncommon for there to be as many lies told about me as truths. ”

”The king asked me to make a sacrifice to the Old Gods, ” she said. ”That sounds far out there. ”

”Perhaps, ” Gaspard admitted. ”But remember my people don look at their gods as man-made. They aren worshipped for their power. The gods are themselves powerful, but only because they exist. When we speak of sacrifices to them, we are talking about giving up something with great value to receive their blessing. However, we can see it as more than that. If your sacrifices do not come from the heart, your devotion is empty. Sacrifice to me, not from duty but because you want it. Think of the anointed priestesses on my fathers side—they sing and dance for hours for the Old Gods. They give everything to them willingly. ”

”You practise that kind of worship? ” Celene asked. She couldn help wondering what Gaspard would expect from her.

”Many of us do, ” he said. ”Others focus on meditation, which is something similar. You must feel their power coursing through you for it to be sincere. Regardless of what we give up, it must be offered in the spirit of devotion, not an obligation. ”

”So even though I might think making a sacrifice is insane, the Old Gods will reward me anyway. ”

”Perhaps. They are strange to understand sometimes. When the anointed priestesses begin the rite of chanting, they count aloud to keep track. Why? ” Gaspard shrugged. ”Who knows? And when it comes time to give up their offering, they must also chant numbers again and again. How they find this relaxing, I do not know. ”

Celene shuddered. It was one thing to speak of making sacrifices to the Old Gods as some sort of esoteric form of spirituality, but another entirely to talk about being a part of that. Gaspard certainly knew about it. Her mind reeled. Was that why hed brought her along? To test whether she had true devotion to him and the Old Gods? ”Ill have to do as you ask, ” she said. ”If all I need to do is offer a sacrifice. If Im asking you for anything… ”

”To stop treating yourself like someone who has lost their way, Celene, ” Gaspard said. ”To stop trying to change everything by changing nothing. ” He walked her back to the stable where she had left her horse. She slipped to the palace without looking back, feeling like a dark cloud had rolled over her.


On the third morning after returning to Lrial, Celene heard footsteps coming down the hallway before she could find the courage to face Gaspard. She watched from the shadows as his servants ushered him into the room she had shared with Roxy. Several of them stood just inside the door, waiting to carry off the assortment of bags and boxes that he now carried.

Gaspard halted at the head of the stairs, letting the servants herd him up and away. The knights had all packed up and taken their leave the previous night, leaving only their master behind. Celene felt the rage shed kept pent for so long begin to creep back through her veins. Rage and fury are more terrible than any other emotion because they could be directed anywhere and no one could tell you why. It would make anyone who dared try to control her suffer. She had learned to keep it close for when she truly needed it, but being surrounded by those who sought to put constraints on her made her want to fling her feelings about without restraint.

The steps brought Gaspard to the foot of the stairs, and Celene waited until she passed by to dart out the door and follow. The servant following them at a respectful distance slowed when he saw her coming. She grabbed his shoulder to hold him in place as she whispered, ”Stay here. Wait for me, and Ill explain everything. ”

He nodded and pointed her toward the stable. Celene dismounted the moment she was out of sight. She glanced around for Roxy before grabbing one of the saddlebags that the servant had been carrying and putting it over her shoulders.

”Celene? ”

She turned to find Gaspard standing next to the open door to the kitchen. ”I just came to say goodbye, ” she said. ”I assume you know where everyone else is, so it shouldn matter if I go or not. ”

Gaspard nodded slowly as he took in her disguise. ”Why are you wearing a saddlebag, then? Where are you going? ”

”I am taking your horses, of course, ” she said. ”And whatever supplies you have here. ”

She felt him stiffen for a moment before relaxing again. ”So, you aren planning to stay then? ”

”Of course not, ” she said. ”But it seems odd to take those things and ride away without explanation. ”

”It does seem strange, ” he said. ”You may consider it a favour that I let you do so. If I had said anything, you would likely have burst into tears and bolted with my steeds in tow. I have seen it before. ”

She paused, thinking of how she might argue or start another fight. Now was probably not the time. ”Let me at least get rid of all of this gear, ” she said.

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