“It was boring just wandering around by myself. What else was I supposed to do?”
“Stay out of trouble. Stay away from the capital of a civil war.
Go find somewhere safe and relaxing to be.”
Mische’s nose scrunched. “Safe and relaxing?”
She said this like the thought was ridiculous, and to be fair, anyone who had met Mische even once would know that it was. Mische was the opposite of safe and relaxing. Mische was so impulsive and reckless that sometimes, it genuinely scared me.
Once she finally released me from her chokehold of an embrace, she’d dragged me into her sitting room. She was wearing a dusty white shirt and trousers, still travel-stained. But if she was tired, she didn’t show it, curling up in an armchair and drawing her knees up to her chest as she demanded, wide-eyed, that I tell her everything. She’d heard the biggest news, she said, but she wanted to get it all from me.
There was not a single person in the world I was more comfortable with than Mische. She’d seen me at my worst. And yet… telling her the entire story of what had happened in the final trial of the Kejari and beyond… it was hard. I hadn’t collected all the events in one place like that before. My eyes fell to a particular spot on the carpet as I told her, as sparsely as I could, what had happened.
By the time I was done, Mische’s excitement had turned to such raw, eviscerating sadness that, when I flicked my gaze back to her, it made me choke a laugh.
She looked like she was near tears.
“Ix’s tits, Mish. It’s not that dramatic.”
But Mische just unwound her legs, crossed the room, and gave me one more long hug—this one not the puppy-excited squeeze of a reunion, but the quiet embrace of a supportive friend.
I wriggled away from her grasp. “I’m alright. And you stink.”
“You can’t lie to me,” she muttered, then sat, cross-legged, on the floor, her chin propped in her hands.
“Seriously, Mische…” I picked at my fingernail. I wasn’t sure if the blood still stuck underneath it was someone else’s or my own from my incessant picking, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave it alone. “Things are rough here. You should go back to the country.”
It was the easy thing for me to say, for me to push Mische out of Sivrinaj, and yet a loud part of myself cursed at me for even saying the words—even knowing, of course, that she wouldn’t listen.
I’d missed her. No, that was an understatement. She was my only family, blood or no. There were two people alive right now who, I felt, for better or for worse, really knew me. Oraya and Mische. When Oraya looked at me, it was all accusation—I see what you really are. But when Mische looked at me, it was affection. And I’d missed that, but it was also uncomfortable. Was always harder to play the roles I needed to play when Mische was around, knowing me too well.
“It was boring as shit out there. Besides, did you really think that I would just leave you here alone?” A wrinkle deepened between her brows. “Or her?”
Despite it all, it warmed my heart a bit to know how fond Mische had grown of Oraya. It was like she’d known, right from the beginning, how important she would become. I’d always wondered if Mische had a bit of mind magic in her. Just a touch of it. Those things weren’t in the domain of Atroxus, but her empathy was a bit uncanny.
I felt like I needed Mische, and I hated that. But maybe Oraya needed her even more than I did, right now.
“Mm,” I said, vocalizing none of this. “Things are bad?”
I thought of Oraya’s ragged sobs in the middle of the day, when she thought no one could hear her. Thought of the empty nothingness on her
face for weeks.
Thought of her voice—I do hate you.
“Yes,” I said. “Things are bad.”
The concession was bitter with regret.
I’d long ago given up on some image of myself as a morally decent person. I’d killed hundreds with my own hands over the years. Thousands indirectly, as a result of my actions in the last Kejari or this one. I’d done what was necessary to survive. I tried not to beat myself up about it.
But I would always regret this. Breaking Oraya. That was a sin that I’d never be able to atone for.
A long silence. Then Mische said, softly, “I’m just… really, really glad that you’re not dead, Raihn.”
I laughed a little, but she snapped, “Not a joke. I mean it. What were you thinking?”
I wasn’t sure I was glad I wasn’t dead. When Oraya had killed me, I’d felt certain that I was doing the right thing. Giving Oraya the power she needed to seize her potential. Giving the House of Night a clean start. No messy alliances with the Bloodborn. No complicated pasts.
That had seemed worth dying for in that moment. The dying, after all, wasn’t the hard part. The coming back was where all the mess started.
I just said, too casually, “I wasn’t really doing much thinking,” even though it was a blatant lie.
Her brow furrowed. “But you worked so hard for this.” I had to clench my jaw to keep from saying the truth.
For this? No.
I’d entered the Kejari because Mische had. Because she’d forced my hand. Because one day, when we were traveling, she’d caught me on a particularly bad night, and I’d told her all of it—the truth of who I was and the scar on my back, the things I’d never uttered aloud to another person.
Every emotion painted over Mische’s face, and that night, I’d watched her sadness for me, and then her confusion, and then, the thing that actually hurt: the excitement.
“You,” she’d breathed, eyes lighting up, “are the Heir of the Rishan line and you aren’t doing anything about it? Do you have any idea what you could do?”
That had fucking killed me. The hope.
We’d gotten into a fight that night—one of our worst, even after years of constant companionship. The next night, Mische had disappeared. I’d been beside myself by the time she returned, nearly at daybreak, and she’d showed me her hand: her blood offering scar.
“We’re entering the Kejari,” she had said, smugly. Like she’d just signed us up for a painting class or a city tour.
I hadn’t been so angry in years. I did everything I could trying to find a way to get her out of it. But in the end, I ended up there right beside her, just like she knew I would.
After my initial outburst that first night, I never told her how I felt about that. I held that discomfort in a tight knot in my chest, buried deep.
It was hard to be angry at Mische.
But harder than the anger was the concern.
It was no small act, to enter the Kejari. I thought often—unwillingly— about Mische, and the decision she made, and the way that sheer fucking luck had saved her life.
Only one person could win the Kejari. What had Mische’s plan been, if things had unfolded differently?
I didn’t like to think about that.
I tore my eyes from Mische’s accusatory stare, and they drifted to the hand she had propped over her knee, and the burn scars barely visible under the fabric of her sleeve.
If she saw that look, she ignored it, instead cocking her head and giving me a light, reassuring smile. “Don’t look so depressed,” she said. “It’ll turn out. I know it will. It’s just hard right now, but it’s good that you’re here.”
“Mm.” If only the truth was as easy as Mische’s optimistic platitudes. I gave her a sidelong glance. “And how’ve you been?”
“Me?” Her face went serious for a minute, before she gave me a carefree shrug. “Oh, you know me. I’m always good.”
I knew her, alright. Knew her well enough to know when she was lying.
And to know when not to push.
I reached over and rustled her hair, making her wrinkle her nose and jerk away.
“It’s too long,” she said. “I’ve got to cut it.” “I like it. Change looks good on you.”
She scowled. Then she caught my eye and the expression melted into a grin.
“Caught you,” she said. “You’re happy I’m here.” “Never,” I said.
Fine, she had me. Fucking guilty.