when arya says, "i cannot love you," and presses the ball of her thumb against eragon's bowed forehead, she does not feel a thing.
when he kisses her softly, sweetly, sadly, just the one time, he is crying; she has done this before. it does not hurt; maybe it should but it doesn't.
he looks like his mother.
when arya was twenty-three years old, galbatorix came to power. he took the country in a wash of red, crimson taking everyone she knew and leaving her mother with stark tears and pale skin, puffy and pink around her eyes, from the crying that she was supposed to not be able to do. arya was a grown elf, but it did not stop her crying for her father.
her sword was too heavy, when she was young; she was not used to killing. this was not what she had been for.
ellesmera did not sing, anymore. the trees were silent, except for sometimes when they screamed.
when arya was forty-five, she met a man in the middle of a forest. he killed a soldier in front of her and bowed to her and said, tell your mother i said hello.
his name was brom: his eyes were worn and sad. there was a mark on his hand, the kind that she knew not to mention.
they spent a long time in the middle of a clearing, exchanging knowledge and intelligence; he knew city-dealings, he could blend in where she couldn't; she knew all the overarching plans that he could not have seen.
they made plans to meet again.
he said she looked like her mother, like her father.
she forced a smile and left.
arya is fifty. brom tells her that morzan has a new hand, a woman who is as ruthless as he is, maybe more, but they can sway her if they try. there is something desperate in his eyes, in his voice, but he is not hers to fix and maybe she doesn't care.
faolin tells her not to do it, that she will get killed and islanzadi will grieve.
maybe that's why she does it.
her name is selena. she is in love with morzan. she has dark hair and dark eyes; soft, rounded human features. she talks a lot, about clothes and shoes and the quality of the servants in this town but arya knows there is another layer to her, hidden under the woven shell, under the beautiful dresses and the soft and delicate hands and the retinue of servants who look away and shiver slightly when they think that no one is looking.
arya pretends to be a lady of a castle, a minor princess wearing a glamour she made with no one's help, a veil of magic and a little blood. this is the magic that she knows best: the dark magic, the old magic, the magic that comes un-named: it is the one that comes to her like breathing and perhaps it is because she grew up in wartime. perhaps it is because she never wanted to be her mother's daughter.
she knows selena by instinct, knows her by the tug in her heart less than brom's faint, sad description; there is something in the way her fingers move, in the faint trace of copper magic that arya can see in the backs of her eyes.
["she is beautiful," he had said, "beautiful and dark." there had been something sad in his eyes that she had never wanted to understand: it is all she can do to stifle her own emotions, let alone his.]
there is something about selena that arya cannot quite understand, something in the way she tells arya that love is not worth it (drunk and sad, sitting together in the tower of the castle of a minor lord) and the way she holds the glass of wine, like it is something precious with her fingers wrapped around the stem, reflecting in the lamplight. there is something about selena that makes arya want to protect her, even though she knows that selena is stronger than this, so much more than the maiden sacrificed to appease the ghosts of old.
arya walks in the gardens, with her skirts billowing around her ankles. she is not used to them; they make it hard to run.
selena is all grace, as though the people who live here do not dampen her soul, even though arya knows they must. her steps are quick and light, effortless and gentle. the darkness is kept hidden, close. that is something they have in common.
[the lord who owns this castle is named everlay. he is building his own rebellion; he has not talked to the elves or to brom's humans. he is not intelligent enough to understand the gravity of what he has done.]
arya says, "it's a beautiful day."
selena turns to her, smile soft on her pink lips. "it really is."
[the sky is grey, as though it is about to rain.]
they sit in the hall at dinner, trade words about the attractiveness of the men at table, about the servants.
arya thinks that none of these soft fragile humans can hold a candle to faolin. except, perhaps, selena.
she toys with a salad fork and insinuates long live the king into the conversation, and is a little surprised when the skin around the corners of selena's eyes tightens, before she repeats the phrase.
the days go by faster than they should; she finds herself slipping, finds herself smiling at times, when she is alone, thinking over things that selena has said, over things selena has done. she knows that both of them are fake, but.
there is something to be said for denial.
[she does not miss faolin and knows he does not miss her. they are made of stronger stuff than this.]
sometimes selena practices swordwork, in the mornings, when she thinks no one is watching: on the roof of one of the lesser towers, with her tunic billowing just a little in the wind and her fingers tight around the hilt of her long thin sword, wrapped in oilskin under the bottom of her bed, most days: thrust, parry, feint; thrust, parry.
there is magic shielding her: arya watches from her window and likes to think that she can see the magic rippling from selena's hands.
selena says, "have you ever been in love?"
arya shakes her head: no.
selena's hair is beautiful, when she wears it loose and out, when there is no art to it.
arya tries not to think about what it means, that she has noticed.
she thinks about what it would mean to have selena on their side: she is quick and smart, bright and good with a sword and ready with a laugh and there is something missing in her eyes that might one day be filled, a hole that morzan dug because that is all he knows to do.
[she met morzan, once upon a time; he was friends with her mother and he had picked her up and said that she was beautiful.
she had thought that there was something strange about him, about the way he spoke galbatorix's name.
she knows she was right.]
she knows this will never work, and she watches selena plot and scheme until it feels like arya is the one who is wrong.
selena sits with her fingers wrapped around a pillow and says to arya, "i am riding out in the morning."
[the lord's best advisor has died, under suspicious circumstances; without him, the lord's rebellion will crumble. no one will ever know that arya saw selena creep through the hallways, last night; no one will ever know that arya saw the blood under selena's fingernails and the magic that was wrapped tight around her, like a shroud.]
arya thinks that she should kill selena, that she should summon a dagger of green fire and shove it through selena's heart, that it would not hurt her nearly so much as it would hurt selena and morzan and galbatorix. she thinks that she should tell selena that she knows, that selena is so much better than this.
she says, "are you all right?" and her voice is soft with all the cadence of a human voice, all the emotions that she has learned to wear on her sleeve.
selena's eyes are roiling and dark, her eyelashes long and thick. she says, "thank you for asking."
it's no kind of an answer: both of them know it. she says, "you have been a great friend, this past month. i do not know what i would have done without you."
she looks at arya, careful and strange, and her palm is cool on arya's cheek and her lips are soft on arya's when she kisses arya, and it is the strangest thing that arya has ever felt; she cannot help but kiss back.
selena leaves in the morning.
arya thinks, this is not what i wanted. her hair is tousled, long and dark.
she tightens her hands in the skirts of her dress, and wonders when she became so human as this, to fall in love with a facade.
she tells brom that it cannot be done, that he is sorely mistaken, that there is no way that morzan's wife would ever come to fight against him.
[she does not know that she could fight with selena, that they could ever be on the same side. she does not know why these feelings are blossoming in her chest; she does not know why she cannot stand faolin's hand on her wrist anymore.]
selena says, "i did not believe him when he said it was you." her eyes are angry, almost black with the depth of emotion; she is holding a long, sharp sword in a hand that does not shake.
arya closes her eyes. the magic whispers bright green to her, tells her that her will is its command. she says, "i am sorry."
selena says, "me too." her blade kisses arya's neck, almost drawing blood.
emerald explodes on arya's fingertips, tasting like copper in her mouth.
this is how it works .
durza is like penance, when he comes. she knows she does not love him, and so she can hold herself strong and kiss him back, just another form of the fight.
he is nothing like selena: he wears his darkness outwardly, almost brightly; sometimes he has nightmares, screaming and writhing: she laughs, inside.
selena never dreamed.
eragon's fairth shimmers in his hands.
she has never been as beautiful as they think she is.