"...Kinjra? Can you hear me? I need your help!"
Kin stirred in the warm comfort of soft pillows, a heavy feather quilt, and unyielding darkness. The last thing they wanted to wake up to was their mother's shrill yelling, but since Dad had been taken, this was how most of their mornings began. It was either this or she was too riddled with grief to get out of bed herself, leaving her child responsible for their own well-being. As if Kin wasn't grieving too.
Thankfully, Kin didn't need to grieve anymore. They could remember every moment of the 'Seer Dream' they had last night — both the horrifying and the inspiring — which meant that no matter what Mother said or did, their good mood couldn't be ruined. Dad was still alive, and that changed everything. The year they suffered without him was in the past now. They would all be reunited soon.
"Kinjra!" their mother shrieked. "I just saw you move, so I know you're awake. Don't you dare ignore me and go back to sleep!"
Groaning like their fae, Kin flailed their arms out from under the quilt and fluttered their eyes, discovering the nest was already drenched in sunlight. They squinted, half-blind from the golden brilliance, as they searched the room for their mother. She was looming in the last place they expected, above the long-neglected stove and the sink where they washed clothes more often than dishes.
"I've let you sleep long enough!" she shouted, impatiently tapping her foot and clanging a ladle against the bubbling cookpot. "Get up, bring me two bowls, and put on your day clothes. We can break our fast once you're ready!"
Dad used to say his wife's voice was the epitome of beauty, her vocal cords finely tuned and expertly honed from natural talent and tireless practice, able to reach octaves that most singers could only dream of. He'd told her as much on the night they met, having just listened to her perform on the ivory beaches of her roostland; a small region on the western coast of Thaye called the Wallowing Shores. But instead of 'falling in love at first sound' as Dad had, Kin was frequently annoyed. Each sharp high note felt like a spike was being driven into their skull, leaving them with a splitting headache.
"Just give me a minute!" Kin pleaded, losing their calm and clutching their head. "The light is way too bright. My eyes need time to adjust, else I'll get a migraine. I can already feel one coming." Better to deflect with a half-truth than start a fight.
"What have I told you about excuses?" spat Jrana, sniffing with disdain. It was easier to think of her by name whenever she acted like this. Mother would only add heartache to the pain equation. "If I tell you to do something, I don't want to hear them. I want you to listen!"
"Mom, please!" Kin yelled, snapping up and glaring across the room, straight into Jrana's cerulean eyes. The near-emaciated woman instantly went stiff, her thin arms crossed over a too-large pair of dark brown coveralls; the unbuttoned collar of a tan blouse and the neck of a sea-green sweater poking out. Despite wearing multiple layers to fill her work clothes, she looked no less frail, yet the expression on her pointed face made her seem as deadly as a knife. Her frown was taut with spite, her eyebrows were raised like blades, and her brow was furrowed in murderous anger. Tears blurred Kin's vision as they started at each other in silence until finally — miraculously — Jrana surrendered.
"You get a minute and nothing more or you'll make us late. But don't you dare raise your voice at me again, young lady! You also might want to hurry if you want to enjoy this broth while it's fresh," she added, turning around to slip on a pair of mitts and move the pot closer to the open window to cool. A warm breeze passed through it, fanning the delicious aroma of boiled vegetables around the room.
Kin inhaled a deep breath, relishing the scent. Their grin was fleeting, however, swiftly wilting into a frown. Though wasn't unusual for their mother to rise first, it was rare for her to cook a meal, even when Dad was still around. On her best days, she would rush to get Kin dressed and send them off to eat at the flock's canteen with their friends, only to show up just in time to drag them off for work. Something had to be seriously wrong to warrant this amount of motherly attention. But what?
While Jrana looked the other way, Kin checked the bed for dirt, finding the pillows and quilt immaculate, before finally realizing their hands were just as clean. It seemed they hadn't brought their fae to sleep after all. Does that mean the dream wasn't real? they wondered, their heart dropping like a rock into their stomach. That everything was just my imagination?
Two deep groans bellowed within the flowerless pot beside the front door, making it shake against the floorboards. Though Jrana couldn't hear the fae, she could hear the rattling of ceramic on wood. With a yelp, she jumped and ran straight for him, raising the ladle like it was a hammer. Poising to strike.
"Get up and tell it to stop frightening me!" she shrieked. "It woke me up four times last night, Kinjra. Four times! You need to learn how to control it before the Seers find out about you, come steal you away, and get you needlessly murdered like your father!"
Kin clenched their fists at the comment, choking down their desire to yell back. Jrana was too distracted to notice, busy glaring daggers at the fae she couldn't even see, let alone harm. For her to mention Dad's 'death' so maliciously... it had become increasingly clear that she wasn't having her usual kind of bad morning. If Kin didn't want to make her worse, they would need to handle this very carefully.
Sighing, Kin closed their eyes and reached out for their fae. Please, for the love of Sun and Fate, don't make any more noise around her. The hatred she feels toward your kind runs deep, so if we're going to save Dad, then I need to calm her down before I mention our conversation with Harmony. Knowing her, she'll refuse to believe it's not a trap or a trick to conscript me too, then force us to run the other way. We can't let that happen.
Without making a sound, Kin sensed the dirtball fall over and go still, like one of Belen's animals playing dead at his command. If not for the situation, it might have brought a smile to their face. So much for my good mood.
"He won't bother you again," they said, drawing Jrana's malevolent stare. "If it's worth anything, he's sorry for waking you last night. He never meant to disturb you."
"Apologies are worthless," she scoffed. "It's actions that matter. I'll believe it can behave when I see it."
There was so much about that statement that Kin wanted to protest. Take the fact that no matter how many times Kin insisted on their fae being a he, Jrana continued to refer to him as 'it,' thinking of him as nothing more than an enemy or an inconvenience. A burden, she had once called him. All because her child could see him and his kind.
Jrana could deny it as much as she wanted, but that didn't change the fact that Kin was granted the Sight like Dad, Grandpa Anant, and Uncle Anjre. For all the danger that put them all in, Fate had chosen nearly every member of Jrana's family, and rather than risk losing another person she loved, she preferred to run, lie, hide, and live in delusion. All because she couldn't stand the idea of being alone.
Perhaps the greatest irony was the effect that had on Jrana's fae, the sole being in the world that was created to remain by her side forever, bound to her soul by Fate. The poor thing was so anxious, he constantly vibrated a high-strung hum that made it very for Kin to find him, even while he avoided being seen by people who couldn't perceive him — including his own human, whom he avoided most of all. Whenever Kin did spot him, the fae would flee so fast, he'd become a watercolor blur of blue-green, but for a brief second, they'd catch a glimpse of his true form: an oyster of see-through seafoam with a pearl of white light buried within. Nervous, inflexible, and beautiful. Just like her.
Hard as it was, Kin had to remember that somewhere within her cold outer shell, the mom they loved was still alive, much like her fae's tiny, shiny heart. Was she profoundly hurt by the past and utterly horrified by the future? Like most of the folk that still lived in and called this doomed world home, the answer was a loud and resounding yes. Jrana coped with the pain and fear in the only way she was raised.
In the back of their mind, Kin felt the tickle of a memory, evoking their younger self's voice. I can feel your pain, which means it's my responsibility to help. Was it fair that Kin was the one that always had to deal with their mother's lashing out? Hell no! But Jrana was still here, and that had to count for something. She was family, and she was suffering. Dad had taught Kin that it was their duty to at least try.
After briefly massaging their forehead, Kin crawled out of bed and ran to fetch a pair of bowls, then joined their mother by the stove. Once both were filled with the nutrient-rich broth, they placed them on the table under the nest's other window, then began to rummage through her dresser. From it, Kin collected undergarments, a pair of dark blue trousers with rips on the knees, a plain white shirt, and a green sweater with branches sewn amidst the yarn. The decorative flowers that originally adorned it had fallen off not long after Dad had purchased it for her 13th Nameday, which he preserved between the pages of an old songbook. When he was back, Kin hoped all three of them could find them among his locked-up belongings and reminisce.
Smiling at the idea, Kin changed quickly, deposited their nightclothes in a twig-woven basket, then hurried to sit in front of her food. In the meantime, their mother stoked the stove's flame with fresh pinch of coalbark, then started to boil water in the mosaic sea glass kettle Dad had bought for their 10th Anniversary. If not for the coat of dust, it would look so much prettier. Jrana loved her tea too much to lock that up, but it didn't mean she cared for it as well as it deserved.
After a moment, she approached the table with a pair of mugs and tea pouches. Instead of placing them or sitting, she just looked down at Kin with her jaw clenched, biting a comment back.
"What's wrong?" Kin asked, unable to bear the uncomfortable silence for more than five seconds.
"What's wrong?" Jrana repeated, exhaling a bitter laugh. "What isn't wrong would be the better question," she added coldly, clutching the mugs so tight, her knuckles were bone white. "At least that answer would be simpler."
Kin reached out and grasped their mother's hands lightly. "I know I don't always listen," they began, searching her misty gaze for a hint of something, "but I'm here if you need an ear. I promise I won't say a word unless you invite me to speak first. Hawk's Honor."
Jrana startled, her eyes widening into pools of glistening blue. For a moment, the mom that Kin had grown up with and loved smiled like she used to, resplendent even with her face gaunt and wrinkled from relentless stress, her unkempt hair pulled into a lazily bound tailfeather, and her slender figure draped in baggy gardening wear.
Then the kettle began whistling, prompting the cold shell of Jrana to frown, slip out of her child's grasp, then drop the mugs on the table and run for the hot water. "There's nothing I need an ear for," she dismissed quickly, not speaking until her face was out of view. It was obviously a lie, but not one meant to convince Kin. It was clear that Jrana was struggling with herself.
Recognizing that, Kin ran to her side, taking the kettle by its rubber handle. "Sorry, but I don't believe you," they pressed, nudging their mother back to the table and urging her to sit. "If Dad was here, he would give you a speech on how communication is the core of peace of happiness. How thoughts and feelings need to be set free or they will fester in our minds and hearts. If you can't talk to me because you think I'm too young or too immature, then please, for your sake, at least speak with Aunt Cres or Miss Nena. You are not alone, Mom. You know that, right?"
Jrana didn't respond immediately. Her thin-shelled lips quivered unspoken words, her wide-eyed gaze both focused and vacant, staring at their child and at nothing at once. In no time, she was sniffling, each breath racking her chest until she was sobbing. Like a dam breaking loose, rivers of tears streamed down her cheeks, quickly soaking the tan collar of her blouse to a dark brown.
Kin turned away to give her time to gather herself. They filled their mugs to the brim and placed the kettle on the windowsill, then grabbed a pair of tiny spoons for stirring and two larger spoons for eating. By the time they returned to their seat, Mother wiped her face and dried her palms on her lap. Her expression became stoic and her posture straightened, reflecting her noble upbringing.
"I'm sorry," she began quietly. "I don't know what came over me," she lied. Then, with a defeated sigh, she added, "Or I suppose I do. I often forget how much of your father is in you. Sometimes I— I think that... I need to," she eventually choked out.
Kin reached across the table and clasped their mother's hands again, carefully folded over the table. "I get it. There isn't a single person on Tairn who doesn't get it. You don't need to suffer and struggle on your own. No one does."
Mom huffed a light breath, holding back more tears by fluttering her eyelids. A lone tear slid down her cheek all the same. More unspoken words in her throat like a lump that was too heavy for her to utter.
"What's wrong?" Kin repeated sternly, adapting the demanding curtness they'd learned from her.
"I..." Mom tried, shrinking inward. "I feel this... dread. The same kind I felt before your father was taken by the Seers. The same kind I felt the night he died on the Fated King's watch. They called his sacrifice noble, but in the end, it was pointless. Fate stole him away for nothing, and now I can't spend the last few years we have with the only man I've ever loved. The only person who understood the real me — who loved me for being me — who made me feel safe, and didn't make me feel broken. Every breath I take without him feels like torture. Every breath just breaks me more." By the time Jrana finished, she wasn't crying alone. Kin could feel her pain like it was their own.
But we don't need to hurt anymore. Dad is still alive. All we need to do is find him and save him, then everything will be better. It doesn't matter that the world is ending so long as we are together.
Kin opened their mouth, so desperate to say those words and end both their suffering—
As soon as the pot rumbled against the floorboards, Jrana startled and pulled away from Kin's hands, retreating back into her shell. "I knew it! It can feel it too, can't it? We should have never followed the Pale Hawks back south. I could have found a proper job in Hallus to afford a heated nest. If we tried, we could've learned how to deal with the blizzards drifting from the North—”
"—Mom!" Kin interjected, harsher than they had intended, internally seething at their fae's unnecessary interruption. "It's okay... okay? Everything is going to be okay! We'll make it to the Wallowing Shores just like you planned. I'll finally meet Grandma Jred and you can see how Grandpa Anant's mind is faring. We'll be safe and well cared for in their castle. You have nothing to worry about."
Jrana slowly shook her head, her face boiling red with anger. "You said you'd listen, but you're not! I can feel something coming, Kinjra! Something horrible! Every time I fell asleep last night, I had the same nightmare. Again and again, I was forced to relive that last night with your father — when the meteor fell and the wraith chased after us — but instead of saving us, the monster would always kill him, and you... you'd vanish, leaving me helplessly alone. When I got up this morning, I thought I would forget about it while getting ready for work like any other dream, but I can still remember every excruciating detail. The fear. The fatigue. The flames devouring me alive, colorless and cold, burning my soul for an eternity. I can't go through that again, Kinjra! I won't! I refuse!"
Kin startled. What Jrana had just described sounded awfully similar to the Seer Dream they had experienced last night, which made no sense. Their eyes darted around the room in search of her fae, but the seafoam clam was nowhere to be seen. For once, his constant humming was conspicuously absent too. Where could he be?
Kin closed their eyes and reached out for their own fae, strengthening their connection without needing physical contact. Don't answer this aloud, but have you seen him? Have you sensed him changing? Becoming more solid? More like you? All ways for Kin to not ask the actual question on their mind, which he could sense anyway. 'Do you think Fate has chosen her too?'
In response, a swarm of emotions barraged Kin's soul. Uncertainty, doubt, concern, and despair. All to express that he didn't know — that he didn't suspect it — but if true, that it couldn't be good.
Kin breathed deeply and braced themselves, preparing to open their eyes and confront their mother. But before they could banish the connection to their fae, all the emotions he'd felt suddenly vanished, replaced by two others. Resolve and regret. With that, Kin realized what they needed to do.
"I knew it!" Jrana declared, taking her child's long moment of silence for confirmation. "I knew you two could feel it too! Every time it woke me up, you were moving around and mumbling in your sleep. You had the same nightmare!"
Kin shook their head swiftly, their cheeks flushing warm in anger. "Mom, listen! You're wrong, okay? My fae and I have no idea what you're talking about. The dream I had... it wasn't a nightmare. Honestly, it might have been the happiest dream that I've had in seasons." At least that last part wasn't a complete lie. For the first time in a year, Kin's hope was rekindled. I can't let you take this from me. I won't!
"I don't believe you," Jrana insisted, balling her fists on the tabletop. "Which is why we're going to count our blessings and turn north. I'm sure Nena can convince her husband to spare a steer for our journey. If Leb wants money, I have a few hundred plumes saved up from Hallus, and Gul will surely provide us enough food to survive a few weeks at no cost—"
"No!" Kin practically growled, embracing the rage. "You need to listen to me when I say that you're wrong! Do you have the Sight? Last time I checked, you don't and I do, which means you need to believe me when I say that nothing bad is coming! If you're having trouble forgetting your nightmare, it's only because it's based on a traumatic memory of when our flock last walked this road! Considering how close we are, it's no surprise you're reliving it, but anything else is just you being paranoid like always, and I'm sick of it! I won't stand for it!"
Much like Jrana was prone to, Kin lost their temper, voice rising and fists punctuating each statement with a thump of their fists on the table. As much as they hated this part of themselves, they could only resist for so long, and they could never escape it. Not when they had to live with the person that had raised them like this. Not when, over the last year, Kin was forced to listen to similar tantrums — not once, but several times — every helldamned day.
"Besides," they continued, desperation sharpening their voice. "Did you forget about the promise you made me? When you told me we'd be leaving the flock to live with your parents, I accepted your decision on the condition that I'd get one last season with my friends. It's bad enough that you're forcing me to say goodbye to the people I love and who love me, but I accepted it. If you force me to do it any sooner, then you're no better than the Seers who took Dad! As far as I can tell, it would make you worse for being a selfish hypocrite!"
Though Kin could barely see her through the haze of tears in their eyes, Jrana shot back in her chair and grabbed her face like she'd been slapped. "I..." she began, but Kin could not relent. Unfortunately, the only way to make Jrana understand was to speak her own language. To make her hurt the same way she hurt others.
"You promised, Mom," they spat, no love left in the name. Just venom. "You know that promises are sacred," they added, forcing their hands to fall limp by their sides. "Only the dead are allowed to break them, so if you do, then I have a promise for you. Should you try to make me leave against my will, then I will hate you for the rest of my life and the forever after. I will never! Ever! Forgive you!"
As they spoke, Kin fluttered their eyes until they could see again. They needed to see if their cruelty had reached Jrana. Needed to know that the nauseating self-loathing they now felt was for a good cause.
The silence that stretched between them was deafening, drowning out the sounds of life that lingered outside. Birds chirped, insects buzzed, and steers harrumphed while other members of their flock walked around their camp and talked, yet Kin couldn't hear a thing, their focus honed solely on the motionless statue of their frozen mother, her eyes empty and her face flat. Neither of them seemed willing to breathe in the wake of their brutal speech.
It was impossible for Kin to know how much time had passed before Jrana inhaled a soft breath. "It really doesn't feel anything?" she exhaled softly, her voice as unfeeling as her ice-cold expression.
"Not a thing," Kin stressed. Considering the dirtball had no real tactile sense, it wasn't technically a lie, and if anything, they held more hope for the future than fear. Beyond their walls, Onali's Trail awaited, cutting southward across the Sallow Woods. The grove from their Seer Dream was only a day's worth of travel away, and Dad and his fae were there. Kin could practically hear them beckoning their name. "I promise," they insisted with as much confidence as they could muster. "Everything is going to be okay, Mom. So long as we have each other and press on, I won't let anyone or anything harm you, nor tear us apart. Everything is going to be okay."
Jrana's head drooped, her fringe loosening enough to fall over her eyes. "You should eat before your food congeals," she ordered half-heartedly, gesturing toward Kin's bowl with a meek flick of her wrist. "I didn't slave over a hot stove for you to waste it."
Kin couldn't help but grin in triumph. "Does that mean we're not leaving?" they asked excitedly, discarding their rage. "That we'll keep traveling with the Pale Hawks?"
Jrana nodded carefully, unable to look up and meet their child's eyes. It was clear she had doubts, but their mother always had doubts, even when Dad was still around. Kin might not have known much about Mom's childhood, but they did know it'd been rough on her. Jrana hadn't ran away from home with Dad only because she'd fallen in love.
"Mom?" Kinjra uttered, finally drawing her foggy eyes.
"Yes?" she asked breathlessly.
"I love you. Despite what I said, I hope you know that."
"I— I love you too," Mom stuttered through a frail, half-formed smile. Even when so tiny and tinted with sadness, any glimpse of happiness on her otherwise tense face inspired awe in their child.
Kin picked up their spoon and used it to point at their mother's untouched utensils. "You should eat too," they tried.
"I don't have much of an appetite," Mom replied, turning her hands over in her lap. "You can have my bowl too. You need to eat more anyway, or your body will never grow big enough to hold your heart."
That was one of Dad's favorite meal-time sayings, though he'd always recite it with more warmth. "You know that if he was here, he'd tell you to eat too."
Mom had always been slender, but whenever her depression peaked, Jrana would shrink so quickly, you could practically see her disintegrating before your eyes. Dad's heart would surely break to see her like this after a near-year of relentless despair.
"Please," Kin pressed, stretching across the table to push Jrana's spoon into her lap. "You one said Noblefolk tradition dictates the chef is required to have the first taste. Right?"
Jrana mumbled to herself, then held the spoon up to her face with her left hand, as if confirming it was clean. "That tradition only started because the old Counts were often poisoned by members of their staff. I'll try not to be offended by the implication."
Kin chuckled, glad for the opportunity to lighten the mood. "On the contrary, I think it smells wonderful. Please, just have a taste. Save me from the awkward feeling of eating alone." Keep speaking her language, they advised themself.
Mother's eyes darted to her bowl in consideration. Still, she refused to budge an inch.
"How about this, then? I won't eat until you do."
"Kinjra," Jrana warned, brandishing the spoon like a knife. "Don't push it. I can already hear the Herders fastening the steers to our neighbors. We're already running late for work."
Kin leaned into the back of their seat and crossed their arms, mimicking their mother's usual rigidness. "Then you may want to eat now. I literally just promised that I wouldn't let anyone harm you, which includes yourself. So if you're content to starve, then I have no choice but to starve too. At least until you give in and see reason."
Instead of arguing further, Jrana's stomach grumbled loudly, prompting her to scoop a spoonful of thick green broth. She paused to eye the no-longer-steaming vegetable pulp with suspicion, as if genuinely afraid of poisoning herself. In truth, the problem was she was a strict perfectionist. Before Dad was conscripted, all three of them would need to cook as a family because of Mom's lack of trust in doing it alone. According to a few bits of conversations Kin heard about Grandpa Anant, he'd been incredibly tough on her for the tiniest of failings during her youth. Especially regarding her 'womanly duties.'
"You're so infuriatingly stubborn," Jrana sniffed. "I've clearly forgotten how much of me is in you too."
I wish I could, Kin thought sourly. Rather than ruin the moment, however, they looked their mother in the eyes and grinned. "What can I say? I learned from the best."
"Indeed," she mumbled dejectedly. "I'll eat on the condition that you never speak to me like that again," she eventually offered, her voice laced with unspoken heartache. "Does that sound like a fair deal?"
Kin didn't need her to clarify what she meant. "Completely fair," they replied, a bit too eagerly, though it would have been nice to make her promise the same. "For what it's worth, I'm sad that I had to, but I won't lie and say I'm sorry. You know how much this last journey with my friends means to me. How much they mean to me. More than anyone, I'm certain you can empathize. The seabell doesn't fall from the tree."
Jrana nodded slowly, her expression surprisingly considerate, her eyes soft and frown smooth rather than slanted or sharp. "Less talking," she commanded, lifting her spoon to her lips, "and more eating." She took a bite and made a face. Not of disgust, but more like disappointment.
Kin obeyed without complaint. While they shoveled the slightly warm yet still delicious broth into their mouth, they checked on their mother's progress in short glimpses, only to look away the moment before she was caught.
Despite successfully convincing Jrana that her nightmare wasn't real and to continue migrating with the Pale Hawks, there was no way she'd believe Kin's dream of Harmony enough to let them do what needed to be done. That left them with the sole option of sneaking away when it was least expected. For the rest of the day, they would have to do whatever she asked, no matter how ridiculous or annoying, to remain on her good side and avoid suspicion. Anything less could mean failure, and Kin could not fail their dad.
Not again. Never again.