“I’ve been expecting you,” the Arweinydd’s voice fell from the lofty throne above. The scent of flowers was strong in the air and the sunlight played down through the fluttering leaves, as if nothing terrible happening in all the world.
When Zento was younger, these things would have impressed him. Zemi knew that, and seemed to remember the eager youth that he raised at the Host Gate. However, the last twenty-some years since Awakening had changed Zento.
I’m not that kid anymore, Zemi. I have children of my own. A family. There are some things in life that are more important than your games.
Even before his Awakening, the death of his beloved wife was a terrible, sobering wake-up call. From that point on, the carefree boy-man was forced to grow up and mature. To juggle the roles of being a single father and a leader of the greatest nation of the Inner Realms.
And in both accounts, I’ve failed to come through.
Now, Zento stood before the Dreigiau’s throne, fighting back bitterness. Once again, his family was put at risk for the whims of the Arweinydd who seemed to understand very little about what it meant to have a family to protect.
Sure. You slap the title “sister” on Zazo and Zeni and create a make-shift family. But it’s not the same. You can’t possibly understand.
It hurt. It hurt because he was constantly torn from his duty to the Arweinydd who raised him from a boy, taught him secrets that no other knew, and lifted him up from an orphan to become the High Guide over all of Nefol. Everything he owned was touched by Zemi’s influence and teaching.
The Arweinydd sat with one leg hooked over the arm of the throne, leaning back in a casual manner. There was nothing mighty in the way he sat, as if he knew better than fall back on formality at this point.
Cutting right to the chase, Zento frowned, “What’s this I’ve heard about the search party going beyond the Inner Realms?”
The Dreigiau nodded and rightened himself, “I figured Kudako would bring you the news. Yes, the search party has left the Inner Realms to pursue Lucci.”
“How? Did they go through the Passage?”
“It’s not possible to leave the Inner Realms without traveling through the Passage, Zemi,” Zento put his hands on his hips, wings bristling behind him.
“Zento, you need to relax,” Zemi murmured folding his hands in front of his chin.
“I want answers, Zemi. I’m tired of being the last one to know!”
“If it makes you feel any better, you’re not the last to know. You’re one of the first, in fact,” the Dreigiau winced. There was a strangely subdued look to his face. Like a puppy who had just chewed up the slipper and was trying to find the best way to admit it.
Only, this was a very… big… puppy.
“Spill it,” Zento pressured, with a deep scowl on his face.
“Will it make you content if I do?” Zemi frowned in return.
“No, it won’t,” the Dreigiau got up and paced slowly down the stairs.
Zento fell silent, watching.
“Anything that I tell you will just feed your anger towards me,” Zemi intoned, waving his hand. “Anything that I don’t tell you will just feed your anger doubly. Zento, I’ve gotten to a point where no matter what I do, I lose.”
“Look, I didn’t come here to talk about me.”
“I know. You’re here to chastise at me for putting your son at risk.”
Zento closed his mouth, pressing it into a firm line.
“I want you to remember that it’s a risk that your son chose to take of his own free will. Never did I force him to go,” Zemi noted sternly. “In fact, he volunteered from the start.”
“Maybe,” Zento’s frown deepened. “But I bet Tsu is out there acting without knowing the whole story.”
It was Zemi’s turn to fall silent.
“Isn’t he, Zemi Dreigiau?” the winged man thrust one finger forward. “You do to him just like you’ve done to me. Send us out to fight your battles for you, blindly. Or make us believe you’re trying to achieve one thing, maybe something that we’d like to see happen, while actually working to do something completely different.”
“If you’re still sore about what happened in the Spiral, it all worked out, yes?” the Arweinydd told him with spread hands.
“Yes. That worked out. But what about–”
“And I told you time and again that if you were patient, that your family would come to be with you in Ceiswyr. That has happened, yes?”
“Zemi! It’s not always about the outcomes!” Zento threw both of his hands over his head in exasperation. “You know what your problem is? You only see things based on results. You totally discount the experience and pain that happens on the way to get those results. That’s not how Earthians work!”
The Dreigiau opened his mouth as if to speak, but the Champion continued, not allowing it.
“Our memories, our very souls, are made up of the passage of time. Of experience. Of what happens day to day,” the winged man shook his head. “Sure, it’s great that you built a beautiful place for your people to thrive. That is a wonderful outcome. But Zemi, if it hurts people along the way to achieve it, and especially if it hurts the people closest to you, maybe you’re going about it wrong!”
Silence fell over the gardens. A low flying cloud found the perfect time to scuttle down and block away the warmth of the sun. Zento’s chin was up, body posed in a defiant manner. His mind was filled with images of his past, of all the things spurred on by the Dreigiau that led to this today.
Bitterness. Anger. Reproach.
The feeling of shock and horror as he experienced his Awakening, never warned of it’s coming. The feeling of fear and exile as he was hunted down like a beast by his own people, none of them knowing what it meant to have wings.
The feeling of regret in being forced so far away from his two young sons, knowing he lost so much time with them. He was never able to see his youngest boy grow up… he was never there for TsuYa. And now, TsuYa was sent to a faraway land, chasing the one thing that was destined to destroy them all.
A tempest of emotion filled the gardens with a darkness more than the shadows of passing clouds. The hurt and pain and suffering of a Champion’s endless sacrifice for his Arweinydd, that all went unnoticed, with nothing but the goals in mind. Nothing but the next big project. The next city to establish. The bringing of great things to all the other people, everyone except for himself.
For that moment, Zento chose to be selfish. His voice was full of pain and regret, “I know that a leader has to sacrifice for his people, but Zemi, haven’t I given you enough?”
A despairing, stricken expression flooded Zemi’s face in response. For the first time ever, Zento could feel it, a true trickle of emotion… of deep remorse and sorrow… breaking through the light and shadow of the Dreigiau’s mind.
Of course, the Arweinydd had hints of emotion before. Most of them were shallow, fickle and fleeting. This was something far deeper. Far more real, almost Earthian in nature.
“Oh, Zento, I’m so sorry,” Zemi’s voice cracked. His hands lifted, as if to cover his face, but he didn’t seem to know what the expression meant or how to complete it. He left them extended, almost a motion of pleading. Searching for guidance. Searching for forgiveness.
Zento felt a pang rush through his chest. No matter how angry he was, no matter how much he felt that Zemi was wrong, he still cared deeply for the Dreigiau. The way that the Arweinydd was responding showed that Zemi also cared very deeply for the sacrifice and pain that he subjected his Champion to.
“Things did not work out the way I thought they would,” the Dreigiau admitted with a thick voice. “In fact, they may be far worse off than I’ve been letting on.”
A ripple of fear rushed over Zento’s body. He didn’t know whether to be afraid, concerned or angry. So far, anger did nothing but blind him to the emotions of others, when he was scolding Zemi for doing that very thing.
Maybe Zemi hasn’t been telling me things because he doesn’t think I’ll be receptive towards anything he has to say. Whose fault is it that I don’t know these things? Is it my own?
The winged man dropped his eyes, a shroud of silence washing away the tension. Silence and understanding of his own shortcomings. Because the truth was, though he was the Champion of the Dreigiau, he had no idea what it was like stand in Zemi’s shoes.
“Alright, Zemi,” Zento peered up with a softness in his eyes. “Tell me what’s going on. I’ll do my best to listen.”
The Arweinydd responded to the change in Zento’s approach instantly. There was a hint of pain, but also a hint of hope. As if he was dearly yearning for the help and support of his Champion, and just didn’t know how to reach over the walls that they built between them.
“Okay. Let’s talk,” Zemi finally said, looking thankful. He walked over and stat down on the stone steps that led up to the throne.
Zento followed suit, settling down on the steps next to his Patron. Glancing over, he took a deep breath, the anger and frustration slowly draining out of his frame. As the Arweinydd began to explain, the Champion listened.