The old man driving occasionally flicked his eyes in the rearview mirror from the front of the limo. I thought about closing the divider so I wouldn’t have to see them. I knew that he was looking at me, and I could feel disappointment with every glance, but I couldn’t bring myself to hide from that piercing, wise gaze. I tried to summon the masochist in me to take some enjoyment from this punishment, but years of separating pleasant pain from censure and correction wouldn’t allow me to revel in his sad look like I would under the whip or flail. Instead, I stared at the window as another Turnpike rest stop passed by, trying to convince myself it was the sudden advent of neon in my eyes that made them burn as if I wanted to weep.

I looked over at Gwen in the seat near to me. Fortunately, she wasn’t in much of a mood to talk either, and the way she recoiled from my reassuring hand during the coronation and Johnny’s outburst as if I were one of the fire Elementals that had ransacked the heart of Thornhedge Apartments made it clear that she needed as much space as I did at the moment. I couldn’t even be angry with myself as I mentally berated my poor decision. Anger impelled me to make it in the first place, it seemed wrong to now find refuge in that same foolish emotion.

It was only a couple of hours ago that the word spread through the Leap Day Faire that Thornhedge Apartments was under attack. Even as I thought of it in the car, I was ashamed to admit that I inwardly rejoiced at the thought. Most of the people were there at the Faire, save Tristan. Tristan and the retainers that helped run the place. And if it were only the Winter King I might have even been able to justify, at least to myself, letting the attack continue. Wouldn’t the world be better off with one less Thorn swimming in their cursed and murderous Sea?

The Wyrd, though, takes no rationalizations, and I felt the band that circled my soul straining at its ligaments. It knew that I wouldn’t let, couldn’t let, a freehold under attack fall to its enemies. Still, as I raced out of the Hollow, ushering Summer and Damian into the car, a part of me hoped that there was an error in communication. Maybe there was no attack at all, or nobody left to defend it from. It would take at least twenty minutes to drive there from Jupiter, and in this age that was time to bring entire countries to their knees.

When we finally arrived and I stepped from the car, for a moment I fantasied that I was right. Smoke and flames could be seen in several of the windows. They were obviously tiny fires, but there was always the chance that the deed had been done. I could run in, save as many of the employees as I could find, then let the horrible place burn to the ground. Maybe I would even be able to buy the site and turn it into something good. A shelter or a soup kitchen, or a drug rehab clinic to cut into Laurel’s stock and trade, if only a little. As I ran toward the building, my heart sank with the flickering light in one of the windows as it seamlessly flitted to the next as if playing hide and seek with a voyeur holding binoculars across the street. It wasn’t a fire: it was a person. Which meant the building was actively under attack and I would do my utmost to stop the perpetrators.

My lungs were burning before I reached the stairwell, and I could already feel sweat coating my bare arms, which would soon be glistening in the light from the fire Elementals in the building. From what I heard from Tristan they were on the second, third, and tenth floors. I didn’t know where I would head until a cooling breeze swept past me in a brief moment of clarity and kindness, and I knew that Freya, the air Elemental I had met earlier in the evening, had literally just blown past me. It’s possible she was like Gwyneira, hiding a martial heart inside of a fragile-seeming body. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to find out before hand, and on the off chance she needed protecting, well, unless there was a reason not to, it seemed logical that I could protect the woman and the freehold at the same time.

The large black “2” stood next to the door like a sentry, and Freya pulled it open. I could already feel the heat from one of the attackers hit me, and the inrush of air only made him blaze higher for a moment. As I flung myself through the door, cursing my lack of forethought in not already pulling my sword, I was nearly shocked into immobilization. Immediately on entering the second floor, the Elemental, cloaked in flame like a molten sea creature emerging from an ocean-born lava flow, plunged his hand into Freya’s stomach and pulled it back out, leaving a bleeding gash where he had.

That’s when the anger came. I wouldn’t let him harm a woman in front of me. Less than an hour before she was trying to dance on a tightrope, who was he to attempt to take that from the world? Only then did I notice the mortal bodies in the hallway, singed and charred, cocked at strange angles where bones had been broken against walls, decorative tables, and door handles. I thought back to my Praesidium training, calculating my odds of winning in a straight up fight. I could easily call upon my own cloak of water, smother him and fight in a great rush of steam as we attempted to pound one another. And end up as another human corpse in the hallway.

Instead I thought within myself, calling upon my own ego. With characteristic confidence, it gave me the impression of nodding, and I focused on feeding it the Glamour that I knew would soon be recycled into my words. I bent my will to the task, and began speaking.

“Why are you doing this?” Often the simplest questions are the hardest to answer, but I knew that as soon as he heard me speak he wouldn’t have been able to even if he had one at the ready. I heard the door open behind me and close again, knowing that my new and tenuous “ally” would be caught in the same trance. “Don’t you realize these people have families? Lives? Rufus here,” I pointed to a random body, it didn’t matter whom, “works here to take care of his sick wife and mentally impaired son. Who’s going to take care of them now? Are you? Is your employer? There are thousands of people out there with no job, no hope, and you’ve taken hope from this man’s family in a single act of cruel and undirected wrath.”

And so I talked. Though it was only a few minutes, it felt like hours passed by while I told stories of loss, guilt, and redemption. “I knew a man much like you. He also caused chaos and killed others. Until one day a young man stopped him after he had attacked a woman and made him realize how wide-ranging his actions were. And he was overcome with guilt as he stood there, thinking of the lives he destroyed without even taking them. That’s when he realized there was only one thing he could do: surrender. Whatever happened to him, he knew that he deserved it, and only then could he find forgiveness, not only for those most directly affected by the actions that the young man caught him at, but for all of those who he had harmed in the past. He knew it wouldn’t be easy, but he would find the force of will to bravely face whatever punishment came his way.”

The Elemental’s face began to steam in small tributaries from his eyes, and he dropped his cloak, falling to his knees and begging forgiveness. I realized, as I rode down that dark highway, that he was asking for my forgiveness as much as anyone else’s. And I refused to give it to him.

“He attacked your freehold, he’s your prisoner,” I told Tristan’s butler who had been the one that walked into range of my voice as I started to speak. Seeing Freya get up and reasonably sure the fight was over, I made my way to the heart of Thornhedge for the coronation of their Spring monarch, the Gardener of Thorns.

Again, a part of me rejoiced to see the havoc wrought on this very important Hollow. What was once a verdant and growing marshland was now an environmental disaster. The grass had burned like tinder in a tire fire, and the water that surrounded the scarred land in the center ran thick with toxic sludge, reeking and festering. Now this reflects the heart of the Thorns. And on the day of its caretaker’s coronation, no less. The anger was starting to seep from my heart, though, and already I began to feel the drain of it. By the time Johnny stood up, asking why the monarchs of the Freehold of the Unforgiving Sun were making an issue of his prank and not of Nevermore’s murder, I simply didn’t have it in me to sing like I normally would. Rather than forestall the meaningless yelling, I could only sit there and silently pray that he would learn from this.

Gwen was just as upset by the events as I was, and I offered to take her to Orlando with me for a few days so she could get away, and maybe talk with Johnny who had moved up there without informing his bandmates. I looked over at her, wondering what was going on in her head, but not feeling like I had the right to ask, or the moral fortitude to offer advice that would be anything other than meaningless and empty. Right now that fire Elemental was probably undergoing tortures the likes of which most mortals couldn’t even dream. And he was thinking that he deserved it. And maybe he did. I just wished that I didn’t take it upon myself to make that choice.

He asked for my forgiveness and I refused to give it to him. Now I’d never be able to ask for his.

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