a/n: Welcome back! Hope you’re enjoying this fluffy fic so far. I did admittedly take last weekend off. But it was Mother’s Day, and I had a copy of Pokemon Snap to play with some young gamers. ^_^
The first steps away from the encampment felt slow and heavy. So much had happened with so little time to process it all.
The horses they’d taken with them weren’t necessarily the strongest or swiftest available. But all three were hardy and reliable, with many miles over treacherous land behind them. They would serve well for this journey.
Also, in the event Amaya’s cookies came out absolutely horrid, Janai knew for a fact that she could sneak almost anything to the horse she was riding, and he would eat it. So, with confidence, she led the way on the rock-hard path, compass in hand.
Amaya, however, stole one last glance back at the magic-infused humans.
Janai watched as she did so, concern building in her eyes. “Are you…okay?” She made an honest attempt to sign it with her free hand.
Amaya would admit it was sweet of her, even if she bungled the letter K. “Just remembering,” she signed back and motioned for Gren to interpret.
“Remembering what?” Janai pressed.
Amaya was never fond of elaborating on her feelings, and Janai’s attempt to make her do so anyway struck a nerve. “Oh, just when you captured and tortured me. Nothing major. Let’s keep going.”
Gren’s eyes went wide as he interpreted her words. “Wait, you got captured? When did this happen?” She picked up her pace, leaving Gren and his steed to scramble after her, begging for details she had no intention of giving.
Behind them, Janai felt a flare of frustration building. She quickened her pace as well, passing the human male easily, then turning to block Amaya’s path. “Wait. Your judging in the throne room? You’re angry at me for that?”
Amaya stopped her horse, which gave Gren a moment to catch up. “If by ‘that’ you mean the time you brought me to have my eyes nearly burned out by your Sun Staff, then, yes.” She looked thoughtful for a moment before adding on, “Maybe not angry anymore, exactly. Hurt, I suppose.”
Janai’s clenched her fists. “Khessa was the queen. It was her judgment, not mine.”
“And what did you do?” Amaya asked. “Aside from telling me how not to die at the last second?”
“Khessa wanted you dead from the beginning!” Janai said. “I was the one who argued to at least give you a chance!”
Amaya raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Ah. So that’s what you were doing?”
“What did you think I was telling her?” Janai said, more than a little wounded. She had done nothing but stand up for Amaya at Lux Aurea, and here she was being accused of not caring?
“Well, I did have my back to you,” Amaya pointed out. “Not to mention you had my hands tied, so it wasn’t as if I could even ask what was going on or defend myself.”
Gren was doing an astounding job at keeping his own emotions in check, even though it must have been very difficult for him getting this story for the first time.
“I see…” Janai said. “So, from your perspective, I could have easily been telling Khessa to torture you.”
Amaya nodded. “Perspective is everything,” she signed. “In the moment, it’s your whole reality.” She directed her horse around Janai, making clear the conversation was over. Gren glanced between the two of them awkwardly. He seemed the type who always wanted to make peace between people when he could. It must have done his heart good to see humans and elves form a truce after so many years.
So why does it feel like I’m in the middle of a battle right now? Janai thought. As the humans moved forward, following the well-worn path, Janai slowed her horse, and a tightness filled her chest.
Perspective was everything. When Amaya had rescued her, Janai had wondered why. Her first thought was that the human was desperate to survive and calculated that saving Janai might give her a better chance with her captors. That view had held firm…until the ritual.
“Why did you save me on the bridge?” Janai had demanded on the way to Khessa’s throne room. She had allowed the human’s hands to remain unbound for the moment. She wanted any answers she could get. “Why not let me fall? A Sunfire princess in revenge for a human king.”
For a long time, Amaya had not replied, and Janai assumed that she was simply refusing to respond, as she had been earlier. But right before they reached the throne room, her hands moved again, and Kazi spoke.
“I guess…because it’s what my sister would have done,” Amaya had replied. “And anyway, killing you wouldn’t bring her or my brother-in-law back.”
It was such a matter-of-fact statement, and yet for that split second, it added another dimension to Janai’s perception of the human. This wasn’t just an enemy. This was an enemy who’d lost family. As Khessa had lost her grandmother…far, far too soon. They should have had many more decades together. As it was, Janai barely remembered her at all. And that, unlike many other things, was no fault of the humans.
In that moment, Janai had wanted to turn around. It wasn’t like her to lose her patience with a prisoner so soon. And by all accounts, she’d opened the interrogation with somewhat of a trick question. The Sunfire elves had gathered their forces in plain view. So the fact that the humans had come over to destroy the bridge could hardly be called a shock. What she really wanted to know was what the humans’ long term plans were. How would they threaten Xadia after one of their beloved kings had been killed? Janai couldn’t risk anyone else in her family being hurt.
Janai shook herself back to reality, picking up her pace. Not even magic could predict how lost the humans would get if she let them lead the way too long. Still, she couldn’t quite bring herself to join their conversation–which was all in sign language, their fingers flying so fast, Janai could barely make out one sign from another, let alone guess what any of them meant. She encouraged her horse forward. When she got within Amaya’s sight again, she pointed to the road, then to herself as she took the front position in line.
She glanced back to see Amaya rolling her eyes and signing something.
“I appreciate your elf guidance, but I think I can follow a path without you leading the way.”
“Can you?” Janai said teasingly. Probably not the best idea looking back on it. Amaya immediately took it as a challenge and urged her own horse forward. It stepped in front of Janai’s, just narrowly avoiding a collision. Janai was left staring at the back of Amaya’s shield.
“Oh, is that how we’re going to play it?” she asked of no one in particular.
“Oh, no,” Gren said behind her. “Please don’t turn this into a race. The general is really competitive, and I don’t want to–”
Janai upped the pressure of her own horse, and it surged forward, passing Amaya’s in a smooth, elegant motion. The human and the elves exchanged glances for only a moment before they both took off sprinting down the path.
Gren groaned and did his best to keep up.
By the time the sun was getting low on the horizon, the horses were exhausted, as were their riders. Amaya and Janai each had wide grins on their faces, in spite of their heavy panting. Gren looked ready to pass out.
The good news, as Amaya saw it, was that they would be setting up camp much farther along the path than they estimated they’d be by the first night. The wide open plains were mostly behind them, and the land was turning to forested areas, the path less clear. There would be no racing tomorrow, as fun as it had been. The bad news, of course, was that they would probably re-start their journey much later than planned, as the horses would need the extra rest in the morning to recover from all the running. So the timing had more or less evened out. Amaya could live with that. For now, they needed to get a fire going and make some supper.
She looked into the supplies and winced. The fast pace had shaken up their packs more than they intended. Although they still had ample water left, some of it had leaked from the corked canisters…right onto the flint for the fire. Amaya shook her head in disappointment. They were already following Janai’s navigation, and she hated to ask for anything else. But neither was she going cold tonight due to her own stubborn pride. She turned and pointed to the firepit then to Janai’s sword.
Janai gripped the rune-covered sheath defensively. “Our sun-forged blades are delicate instruments, reserved only for the battlefield. We do not use them for such trivial–hey!”
Amaya already had the blade in her hand. With a single swift motion, she stabbed into the center of the kindling, sparking a small flame that Gren quickly fanned into full, warm life.
“What?” she signed as she returned the weapon. “I’ve used one before.”
“Of course you have,” Janai replied with a smirk and took her time re-sheathing her blade. “Badly.”
And once again, poor Gren was left to wonder what he had missed.
The fire was going strong within a few minutes, and the humans began to prepare their meal. Elves, of course, could subsist on moonberry juice for a good, long while, and Janai had brought plenty. And with nothing to distract herself, her guilt from the beginning of the trip resurfaced. Was Amaya still mad at her? Janai couldn’t blame her if she was. Taking Amaya to Khessa was merely supposed to frighten her into giving more information. It wasn’t supposed to risk her life or her sight.
Of course, Janai already told Amaya how sorry she was–the second the ritual had ended. So why did she still feel guilty now? Hadn’t she been forgiven already? Closing her eyes to think back on the memories, Janai wasn’t so sure.
“How do I apologize?” Janai asked Kazi once they returned with Amaya to Lux Aurea’s fiery prison. And she would call the human warrior by her name. She deserved no less, being the first outsider to ever face the light and not be thrust into a purification ceremony.
For some reason, Kazi seemed to think Janai’s question was a philosophical one. “Apologize? Well, I would say any apology must start with sincere regret in your heart for the wrong done, and–”
“No, not that,” Janai said. “I mean, how do I say ‘I am sorry’? In the human’s hand language?”
“Ah. Yes. O-of course. Simply make a fist–” Kazi demonstrated, and Janai copied. “–and circle it over your heart.”
Janai’s chest tightened as she made the motion. An apology from the heart. She knelt down in front of Amaya, whose eyes were still red and streaming with tears from the intensity of the staff’s judging light.
“I’m sorry,” she said aloud, as she made the motion. “I truly am. My sister should not have kept the light on you so long. It was obvious from the start your heart was pure–”
Amaya replied by shoving Janai full-force in the chest, knocking her off-balance.
“You dare!” Janai caught herself and sat back up, waves of hot anger rising in her skin…
…only to make a humbling realization. “I…would do the same in your place,” she admitted as Kazi sat beside her and signed it in Amaya’s view. A look of disarmed surprise based over the warrior’s face, and while she didn’t apologize for the shove, she gave a nod of understanding.
That was the moment, the first moment, Janai had the sense that maybe humans and elves could find some common ground. Could communicate. Could even, perhaps in the far future, make peace with one another.
Janai pulled herself from the memory as a warm savory smell hit her nostrils. She opened her eyes to see Amaya offering out a plate of food to her. Janai took it, and Amaya signed to her.
“I know you probably don’t need to, but come join us around the fire. It’s just as bad being lonely as it is cold.”
Janai smiled and got up, moving to Amaya’s side by flames. “I agree,” she said simply and took a bite of the meal, which was roasted root vegetables and surprisingly soft bread. As human culinary creations went, it was impressive. Perhaps there was hope for this quest yet.