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Chapter 10: Seri’s Decision

    As Kitsa and Orion walked down the hall, they came across Air sitting on the floor. Earlier, Kitsa had noticed Air downstairs at the table, but what was she doing up here now, looking as depressed as she did? “Air...why are you up here?” Kitsa asked the half-elf.

    Air looked up at Kitsa and smiled. “Umm...just waiting for Seri. I figure I’m as safe her as anywhere else.”

    Orion dropped to one knee softly and looked Air in the eyes with the gentility of a faun. “My mind wonders: why are you concerned with safety? Has something occurred downstairs that would make safety an issue?” Orion still felt like he was shaking off that parental responsibility feeling for Air since last night. Something bothering her bothered him.

    “I...well first I hurt Seri’s feelings...” Air started. “And then I ran into the fiancé I left at the altar...and he wants me back, but he doesn’t want to confront anyone else, so he’ll probably run away if anyone is near me...” Air sighed. “I don’t know what to do anymore. So I’ll just sit here until we’ve decided to move along.” The half-elf brought her knees to her chest and put her face on her knees. “I’m so stupid...”

    “I’m certain a high elf as noble as Seri will learn to forgive,” Orion returned quickly. “And as for this estranged man, would it comfort you if you simply stayed near us?” So far, Orion was comfortable with Air, despite how they first met. She had needs and he wished someone would need or want him. “Neither I, nor I imagine Kitsa, would mind your presence.”

    Air looked at Kitsa and then Orion. Although the young half-elf wanted company, she also felt like being alone. The struggle with the conflicting feelings painted across her face, she looked down and away from Orion’s face. “No...” she said quietly with a small sigh. “Thank you for the offer, but I’ll decline this once. I want to wait here until I...” Her voice cracked. “...just for a little longer. That’s all. I’ll be along shortly.”

    “As you wish,” Orion responded, rising to his feet. It was up to her and it didn’t make him feel bad that she didn’t want his help. Sometimes, you just had to do things yourself. He respected that. He turned to Kitsa. “Ladies first,” Orion said, looking towards the stairwell.

    Kitsa’s eyes lingered on Air for a moment, but the half-elf seemed to have made up her mind. The quarter-elf stepped away and headed downstairs ahead of Orion. Estas and the rest of their party were gathered around the same table, except for the half-elf she and Orion met briefly the night before. Kitsa found a seat at the table. Air’s comments had made her curious, so she inquired to Estas about it, “Air said that she hurt Seri’s feelings, what has happened?”

    Orion wouldn’t have asked, but he was equally curious. If it hurt enough to bother Seri, he doubted Estas would be ambivalent about the subject. However, he did not know Estas to be overly emotional in any context. Though Orion gave no sign of interest himself, he was all ears.

    Estas remained calm and casual, having expected to answer a few more questions. “The half-elf we met last night, Albedo, made a rude comment to Air. She retorted, then he did as well. Seri tried to get them to stop, but they did not, and Air spoke rudely to Seri,” the high elf explained, then took a sip of his tea. “Seri decided to meditate on where we will go from here. I didn’t hear her exact words, but she dismissed Albedo and probably intended to do the same to Air.”

    The matter was simple, yet complex, and the savage sat quietly not saying a word. At times like this, Phaeton was sure it was best to stay out of such matters. It wasn’t that he didn’t wish to give a warm comforting word to Seri, but the high elf clearly needed time to be alone. Estas had made that point clearly, disturbing her now would merely frustrate her more. And so the blue-eyed savage decided he would do what would be best. He would stay out of the matter, and support Seri and his companions with quiet strength. Phaeton’s gaze fell upon Luria for a moment and the savage offered her a slight smile and once again resumed his stoic manner.

    Lanir nodded after Estas’s explanation of what transpired and the young half-elf said, “I see. Well then there’s nothing much else that can be done but wait. I pray that this incident hasn’t upset Lady Seri too much.” He worried for her and for her child to be. The journey proposed was already going to be difficult and being pregnant didn’t make things any easier.

    “Air said that she has an ex-fiancé who is searching for her,” Kitsa stated. “Do we know anything about this man?”

    “He’s here,” Mirael replied. The merchant and her daughter had returned after Air went upstairs, and were now seated at the table with the group. “After she left the inn, we ran into him and his servant. When Y’ezela and I approached, they ran off.”

* * *

    A little less than an hour after Seri had locked herself in her room, the high elf reemerged, having regained her composure. She had made her decision and she was ready to present it to her companions. As she stepped out of her room, she paused and saw that Air was still sitting in the hall, waiting for her. “I’ve made my choice,” she said softly to the half-elf, and though she didn’t say what it was, she sounded vaguely optimistic. “Let’s go downstairs and speak to the others.” Seri turned and began to make her way to the stairs.

    Air nodded and followed Seri downstairs. Although there was a scant trace of optimism in Seri’s voice Air’s mind was focused more on avoiding her fiancé, and getting absolutely flooded to the gills on alcohol later. Best way to clear a foggy mind is by drinking the fog to death, she thought with a small smirk.

    Seri slowly descended the stairs, teetering back and forth as she carefully placed her steps. With as much grace as the pregnant high elf could manage, she approached the table her traveling companions sat at and cleared her throat to get their attention. “I have decided to change my travel plans,” she began. “Unfortunately, my search for Azala has led me nowhere, and I am nearing the end of my pregnancy. It would be in the best interest of my child if I return home as quickly as possible, so I am abandoning the search—for now. Those of you I hired for protection and tracking are still under my employment, and you will continue to be paid until we reach the Forest of No Return. Lanir, Y’ezela, and Air, you may still continue to travel with me to the Forest of No Return, but I will not pursue Azala any further, nor accept any more additions to our party. If you wish to find him or your other siblings, you can continue to do so on your own. I plan to leave the city as soon as possible, after Mirael and I find a carriage.”

    Silently relieved that Seri had finally made the right decision, Estas was eager to move on from this city. It had taken Seri far too long to come to this decision, and now he worried for the child’s safety even more if it was born on the road. He would do all he could to make the trip back home quick. “Very well,” he said to Seri. “Orion and Phaeton, join Seri and Mirael to the market. I will remain here and make preparations to leave.” Though he made no obvious show of his relief, his eagerness to leave made it clear. Seri would need guards, and he chose Orion only because he wanted badly to get away from the elf for awhile. He wasn’t certain if Kitsa would be too much of a distraction, or too distracted herself to be a suitable guard, so he sent Phaeton as well.

    The order stung Orion. Estas did care about his improprieties with Kitsa. Why else would he separate them without considering the others? What use would Orion have in the market? He knew nothing of bartering. But Orion didn’t hesitate to follow the command. The most he gave was a sidelong glance to Kitsa, as if to reassure her that he would be back as soon as he could. Orion smoothly walked to Seri’s side, taking up position just behind her, as was prudent for a hired man in his position. As usual, he maintained a respected silence, since employers did not pay him to speak.

    Phaeton nodded and was ready to go, the elves had made their decision and he wouldn’t dispute the matter. Seri would be well protected to the best of his abilities. When the journey was over, he thought about asking Luria to join him on his travels. He had found he enjoyed her company.

    Lanir’s reaction was much different, thought he half-elf ranger didn’t show it. The high elf’s search for the father of her baby had meant much to her, he was sure. But putting her baby’s life in danger in such a long and exhausting journey didn’t make sense. He wanted to find his father yes, but to put an innocent’s life in danger? This was something he’d never do. He would go with Seri and help her as long as she would have him do so, and finding Azala would happen in due time. “I’m honored Seri, I’d like to come along with you if that’s alright.”

    Air pouted. “I kinda wanted to beat up some dwarves and learn how they smith so well, but I guess the Forest-where-nothing-ever-changes-ever would be an interesting place to go.” For like a day... Air rolled her eyes. “Well, take me to your smithy—I’ll come along,” she said the last part with a broad grin on her face.

    Seri gave a nod to acknowledge Lanir, but she still wasn’t in a mood to be especially social. “Well, we should go to the market and get this shopping done,” the high elf said, looking to Mirael and the two guards Estas had chosen for her. Mirael nodded and stood from her seat at the table. The two women headed for the door, expecting Orion and Phaeton to follow.

    Kitsa’s heart fell. Did Estas deliberately separate them? Did the high elf care more than she thought? She met Orion’s eyes as he glanced toward her, and she could see that he was concerned about Estas’s reasons as well.

* * *

    Seri, Mirael, Orion, and Phaeton had been gone for nearly two hours when a plain carriage drawn by a mismatched pair of warmblood horses pulled up in front of the inn, driven by Mirael. Inside rode Seri with her two guards. The trip to the market proved that the two women had no actual need for the guards, but it had been a precaution from muggers or other threats. Mirael had been able to find the used carriage from a dealer in the horse market and picked out a sturdy pair of horses to pull it. Along the way, they had also picked out some supplies for the baby that Seri hadn’t been able to bring on her own horse.

    During the entire ride back, even Seri could tell past Orion’s emotionless face that his mind was elsewhere. Instead of whispering questions towards her needs, he merely sat outside, with half of his body hanging off of the back edge. The pretense was “to watch for potential threats”, but when the carriage hit a bump and the flaps popped open, he was rarely looking at the crowd. His eyes were turned upwards towards the sky, watching the clouds with a forlorn face. Seri hadn’t said anything, nor had anyone else. All the better, because he couldn’t have explained it to them if he tried.

    Mirael hopped down from the driver’s seat and opened the carriage door for Seri. With the help of her guards, the pregnant high elf emerged and the group entered the inn.

    “We have returned,” Seri stated once she entered the common room and was within hearing distance of her traveling companions. “I hope everyone is prepared to leave. Estas, will you fetch my things from my room?” Estas gave a nod to Seri and stood from his seat. Silently, the high elf went upstairs to do as his ward requested.

    After Seri had announced they would leave when she returned, everyone had prepared to leave and had their belongings waiting for the high elf. Y’ezela left her bag on the floor next to her chair and went to meet her mother. This was where they would part ways. Mirael helped Seri as much as she could, but she had to put her business first. There was little more she could offer the high elf beyond the companionship of another mother. Y’ezela and Mirael embraced fondly for a moment, then pulled apart.

    “Ezzy, I want you to drive Seri’s carriage. You know how, so I trust you can handle it,” Mirael said.

    “Yes mother,” Y’ezela replied. “I will send you a letter once Seri makes it home safely.”

    “Good. Take care of yourself, and your sisters now.” Mirael paused and unbelted the curved dagger she wore around her waist. It was more ornamental than functional, but it would do in a pinch. Y’ezela had no weapon of her own, and while Mirael had sent her off without one initially, she was now regretting that choice. Even if Y’ezela was surrounded by mercenaries, Mirael was worried about Air’s fiancé causing trouble. “Take this. Don’t stray too far from your companions either, and keep an eye on Air, alright?”

    “Yes mom,” Y’ezela said again. The half-elf bard gave her mother a kiss on the cheek, then rushed to get her bags and take her place in the driver’s seat.

    Mirael then went to Air, her newly adopted daughter. “Air, be careful out there. Let Lanir and the others watch out for that fiancé of yours. Once you’re done helping Seri, Y’ezela can help you find me if you need me.”

* * *

    Kitsa hadn’t gotten up the courage to speak to Estas during the wait, and he certainly had nothing to say, but the way he split up her and Orion was gnawing at her. He seemed so disinterested, but did he really have concerns about their relationship on the job? She wanted so badly to say something, but he intimidated her too much. She didn’t know why he should though, the worst he could probably do was fire her. During the wait, she had eaten breakfast and brought down her belongings. When Orion came in, she met his eyes with a worried glance. They would probably still have to share a horse, but Kitsa thought it best to put some distance between them while on the job. Maybe that would prove to Estas that their relationship was no threat to the mission.

    Sairina had noticed Kitsa’s tense mood, and she was equally unsure as to Estas’ reasoning for splitting up the couple. She found the high elf intimidating as well, but for different reasons than Kitsa. She desired him, but he seemed unattainable, even to a woman as beautiful as she. The priestess would try to speak to Kitsa if she could during the trip, but she didn’t want to interrupt breakfast right now. While they waited, she had taken care of some duties around the inn, including requesting that their horses be saddled and prepared to travel. The priestess picked up her backpack and stood. “Your horses are waiting in the stableyard,” she informed Orion and Phaeton, and then turned to head out to the stables through the back door as well.

    Seri heard Sairina mention the horses, and Seri recalled her own horse. Y’ezela had ridden the mare before, but now that the bard was assigned to driving the carriage, Ilavirin was open for someone else. “Lanir, Air, or Kitsa, one of you may ride my horse. Decide amongst yourselves,” she offered.

    As Orion entered, Kitsa hadn’t jumped up to see him, or anything. It was what he was expecting, but she was showing restraint, perhaps because she came upon the idea that Estas did care somehow and perhaps holding back in front of everyone would be wise. If that was the case, then all was well, he supposed. He slipped a hand on her shoulder as he passed. “I am going to prepare my horse,” Orion said, a little louder than usual. He glanced right at Kitsa as he did it. “I may be a few moments, for she needs to be brushed as well...” Orion grabbed his things from upstairs quickly and walked out the door, giving Kitsa another glance, hoping she would get his hint and follow.

    Phaeton gave Sairina a slight bow and headed to the stable to gather his horse. The young savage thought briefly about the situation he found himself in and afforded a glance back at his companions. The elves were fascinating, like the legends of his people, they were beautiful, intelligent and mysterious. Lady Seri, Estas, Orion, Lanir, and Luria all intrigued him. But what confused him even more was the fact that they all seemed to suffer from nearly exactly the same problems that most humans had. His view of elves wasn’t shattered, but it was an eye opening experience for him to find they weren’t as perfect as he’d believed.

    Lanir opted to let one of the others ride Lady Seri’s horse and he turned towards Air and Kitsa after the high elf’s statement. “Why don’t one of you ride?”

    Kitsa smiled to herself when Orion as he touched her, and she picked up on his hint. Before she went to join him though, she had to address Seri’s offer. While riding the high elf’s horse would make it easier to do her job as a bodyguard, the fact was that Kitsa didn’t know how to ride. She grew up on an island where one’s feet were good enough to travel to one side from the other. When Lanir offered her the horse, Kitsa shook her head. “No, I cannot ride,” she said. The quarter-elf turned away in a swirl of red skirts, then went to join Orion in the stableyard.

    Lanir gave Kitsa a curt nod and said, “Very well. I’ll ride the horse then. If anyone wants to ride with me, they’re more than welcome.”

* * *

    “How are you this morning?” Orion asked as he found his mare, munching on hay in her stall. “Forgive me for the prolonged absence...”

    Kitsa’s spirits lifted a bit as she stepped outside into the sunny yard, away from their employers. Orion’s horse, Soiff, had not been prepared by the stable boys yet, and Orion was tending to her himself. Kitsa stepped into the stall with him, and found herself at a loss for words. Should she bring up what they both seemed to be worried about, or should they just avoid the subject? Kitsa opted for the latter, and decided to state her traveling plans instead, “I think I will ride on the wagon. I suppose that a guard there would be useful, and I do not know how to ride a horse.”

    Orion had begun brushing Soiff, which was a meticulous and almost intimate moment. He was quiet, as usual, but not thoughtless. He considered every stroke of the brush as if it were a piece of a painting. “I have always thought that there is never a better day to begin learning something than today. Perhaps, when you feel up to it, I could teach you. If you are comfortable with that, I mean.” He had heard of a few elves in the world who thought using horses for riding or other purposes was a disgusting, manipulative act upon a fellow creature. Orion wasn’t so certain of that, since Soiff never tried to run away and he thought a steady source of food was good pay considering the worker involved needed constant guiding. “I suppose I will have to guard the rear then.” That way, he thought to himself, I can look at Kitsa more than the road.

    Kitsa’s eyes brightened at the offer. It wasn’t learning a new skill that excited her, but the reason to spend more time close to Orion. “I would like that,” she replied.

    Orion smiled a bit. He never managed a big smile, but the subtle changes in his face said what needed to be said. “I’m glad,” he said quietly, watching the brush align every hair and leave a glossy shine behind it. “I suppose it will have to wait until you are no longer riding along with Lady Seri, unless you wish to learn on the road.” Privately, he hoped sooner rather than later. Though he understood her deciding to wait, since it was an easy way to make a fool of herself.

    Kitsa wouldn’t have minded to do it now, but she was certain their employers would. “We should practice when we rest for the night. I do not believe Seri would appreciate it if we were not doing our jobs on the road,” she replied.

    “You make a good point,” Orion said, brushing the horse’s mane out. It was worth a try. Her need for bodyguards, to Orion, seemed minute. Sometimes, he even forgot that the job was to protect her. There didn’t seem to be any looming foe on the horizon coming for her. In fact, he was fairly certain a high elf like Estas could protect her properly on his own. But work was work, he supposed. “We shall wait then. I promise you that it is not difficult.”

    Kitsa gave a quick nod with a grin. “Very well,” she replied. “I look forward to it.” The quarter-elf leaned down and kissed Orion’s cheek. She would have preferred a kiss on the lips, but she had to keep her displays of affection minimal. Though, knowing Orion, he probably wouldn’t have been comfortable with anything more in public. “I will speak to you later,” she promised in parting and withdrew from the stall.

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