She was slumped over on the table, head resting in the crook of her arm, a small and somehow forlorn figure. An empty bottle of wine had rolled across the table. There was a capped inkwell and a quill close to her elbow, and a crumpled piece of parchment lay close to her hand, Thaon’s name scrawled across it. It was this that had caught Thaon’s attention, and he picked it up. His eyes widened and he glanced back down at her sleeping form, pity crossing his face, followed quickly by the darkening of memory before settling into its usual unreadable state. He straightened, nodded once to himself, and put a hand on her shoulder.
She groaned and lifted her head, blinking up at him for a while. Finally recognition dawned, followed quickly by consternation, and she sat up abruptly. “Oh. Oh gods. Thaon. I’m -” Her eyes fell on the piece of paper in his hand. “Did you read that?” Instinctively, she made a grab for it, missed, and clutched her head at the sudden movement.
“You addressed it to me, so yes.” If he was amused or guilty or felt anything about his invasion of her privacy, nothing showed in the calmness of his face and voice.
“I – I was going to throw it away. Burn it.” She couldn’t look at him, instead pressing the heels of her hands into her eyes and groaning. “Augh, my head…”
Thaon reached past her for the wine-bottle and frowned. “A whole bottle, Erenith? Do you drink like this every night? I don’t remember you –“
“No!” Reddening, she snatched it from his hand and shoved it under the table, avoiding his eyes as she spoke. “That is, only when I see ghosts. I mean, when I saw you, and I didn’t know what to think, and I had to finish my set and pretend everything was all right, and you vanished with those mercenaries, and I couldn’t write this bedamned letter anyway…blessed Ad- gods. I’m babbling.” By the end of her speech, she had slumped back down, one hand covering her eyes. It wasn’t clear whether it was the hangover or shame.
Thaon looked somewhat uncomfortable, eyes darting around the room before he sighed and put his hand on her shoulder once more. “Eren, I think we should talk, but not here. You aren’t going to like what you hear, but a noisy tavern is one of the worse places I can think of to hear it. Are you sober?”
“Yes! Yes, I’m fine.” She twitched away from his hand, rising abruptly so that her stool nearly tipped over. “Don’t treat me like a child, Thaon. I grew up a long time ago. I’m just…shocked, I guess. Outside. Let’s talk outside where I can clear my mind.” She swayed slightly, but waved away his assistance and pulled a flask from her knapsack, gulping some and splashing a bit on her hands and face. Thaon relaxed slightly at the sign that it was merely water, and followed her out of the tavern.
Outside, the air was cold and crisp, and Eren stood straighter now, tucking her tangled hair behind her ears and taking a deep breath. “All right, I’m better now.” Her hands were clenched by her sides, and she seemed to have a hard time looking at her companion in the lantern-light. “They’re all dead. Aren’t they? They’re really, truly dead.”
“As far as I know, yes. Wyl and Midan, certainly. They died when they refused to fight the Adyans from Temis’s group.” He spoke soberly, watching her face even has his remained unreadable. At his words her face crumpled and she covered it with both hands. He didn’t seem to know what to do with that, looking as if he was going to touch her but not quite daring. “I’m sorry, I thought you’d rather know the straight truth right away…”
She pulled her hands away at that, her shoulders sagging. “I do. I do...thank you. It’s just, it’s one thing, knowing it in my head, and quite another to…did you see them die?” She winced. She hadn’t meant to ask him that.
Thaon’s face closed into an unreadable mask. “Yes.”
Fresh pain squeezed her eyes shut. “I’m sorry, so sorry. If you knew – if Second told you what I did -“
Her words were close to a sob, now, and Thaon’s face softened. He quickly placed a hand on her arm, forestalling any further confessions. “Erenith. Now is not the time to talk about what you think you did or did not do. All of us, every last one of us, were glad you got out. Einar most of all, I imagine – Afallon keep his soul.” He forced her to meet his eyes, although the tears continued to glimmer in hers.
She looked down, and didn’t speak for some time. Finally she squared her shoulders and drew a breath. “And Bieron? You’ve said nothing about him – is there a chance he may yet live?”
It was Thaon’s turn to speak in a rush, his turn to avoid looking in her eyes, his face set like a stone. “I don’t know. We both...survived until the end of the Games. After that… I escaped. Or they let me go, I’m not sure which. I can hardly remember it anymore. I’m not a knight anymore, Eren. They threw me out, after I told them what happened. No, that’s too harsh. I did not keep the faith, so they could no longer keep me. I bear them no ill will, but I need their help.” He took a step forward then, a glimmer of hope in his face for the first time. “Do you –“
The hope quickly died as she turned from him and stared at the tavern door rather than meet his eyes. “I left the Knights a long time ago. I’m sorry, Thaon. I too…I failed them, and now only have myself. Whatever you’re doing, I can’t help you. I’m just a bard.”
His reply was quick, disappointment clear on his face but his manner deliberately casual. “I see. Well, I suppose I should have expected that. If the good gods and avatars made it easy to do the right thing, the world would be much less exciting, right? More pleasant, perhaps, but much less interesting, I’m sure.”
““I’m sorry.” Her tone was pleading, but he only responded with a shrug, his face now void of any emotion other than politeness.
“I’m not blaming you, truly. I only blame myself.” He paused for a moment, then reached forward and clasped her shoulder. “Be at peace, Erenith. And you should probably wash your face off before re-entering the tavern, hey?” He put the crumpled letter back in her hand, and then strode into the night, leaving Eren to sag against the side of the tavern like a broken doll.