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When Volfred and Ti’zo enter the receiving hall, the place is already abuzz. It’s to be expected. They have just overthrown a government, but the morning brings a different sort of disturbance. It takes one glance at Fikani Shang, her feathers puffed and her wings half-raised in a threat display, to understand the immediate issue. The repurposed Palace of Justice has an unexpected visitor, and Hedwyn is, at present, receiving them.

“It is an honor, Chief Physician,” says Hedwyn, bowing carefully, hand clasped over fist in the traditional salute of the Bloodborder outriders. To his credit, his smile is as mild as ever. “But you must understand, while the movement has been peaceful, security remains an issue…”

“Security,” huffs the demon towering over him. Oralech’s presence in the hall is nothing short of impressive. There are plenty of mirrors to catch every facet of his horns, and his eyes blaze like coals. Like the other former exiles, he still wears his former raiments, but in the harsh light of the hall, the white robes are especially bright. “Be careful, boy, one might mistake your manners for cheek.”

“Many have.” Hedwyn sighs, undaunted by the shadow hanging over him. “But, please, take it in all sincerity. I respect your position. I am thankful you joined our march, but this is not my choice to make.”

“Meaning we know the crap you pulled Downside,” says Rukey, whose ruff is poking out through his coat. He is not a martial enough curr to bear his teeth, but he sweeps up to stand beside Hedwyn nevertheless. “We don’t want a fuss, but we’re not about to offer up our kind-of boss on a platter!”

“I’m not here to argue with children. I want to speak with Sandalwood,” says the demon. Not, it seems, for the first time.

“Then you are speaking with him, Oralech,” says Volfred, from the door. This changes the mood in the hall entirely. Oralech glances up, he shakes his head, the white mane of hair falling out of his eyes to get a better look.

“Alone,” says Oralech.

“Not happening!” barks Rukey.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea…” Hedwyn begins.

“As you wish, Oralech,” says Volfred, with no hesitation at all. He glances down at Ti’zo. The imp, with some concern, flits from his arm. “It is well past time, isn’t it?”

 

“So you gave Ti’zo his freedom,” says Oralech.

“The Reader gave Ti’zo his freedom,” said Volfred. “The final say was always hers.”

Volfred receives him in what was once the private offices of the Justices of the Commonwealth-- the inner chambers where they withdrew for deliberation during trials. Neither Volfred or Oralech had seen these offices during their own sentencing hearings, but since the Plan came to fruition Volfred has spent many hours there. It’s become something of a de-facto office during the messy stages that have followed. The desk is full of letters-- from his agents and from ministers from all corners of the country. His students have stripped the chamber of the statues of the Archjustices of the past as well as a number of Astral hangings, but the furniture and the books remain. Exiles themselves, the Justices considered themselves well above the ban on literacy, even as they cast the country down for that very law they ignored.

The students have put up a Nightwing banner and a rudimentary flag with Ti’zo’s silhouette. It hasn’t become the official flag of the new country -- no one has decided yet what the new country will even be named -- but it is, as ever, a start.

It’s the image of Ti’zo Oralech stares at now, stomping over to examine it, picking up the end without a care for propriety.

“He always wished to see the Commonwealth,” says Oralech, releasing the flag, moving on to spin the standing globe on the desk. The door shuts behind them. In the space before it closes, Volfred can make out Fikani and Hedwyn crowding in to stand guard at the door. “Your shadow could be quite whimsical. Not the sort so easy to control. How unlike you, Volfred.”

“You think so? While I did have my reservations, I found us of a common mind,” says Volfred.

“She gave her freedom so I may yet have mine,” says Oralech, stopping the globe on the tip of his claw.

He lets the words hang. Volfred is silent. He considers his next words very carefully, taking a long drag from his pipe.

“So that is the truth of it,” he says, at last.

“Not all of it,” says Oralech, he turns to face Volfred with a great sweep of his raiments. His hooves are not quite steady on the carpets. He hasn’t had to walk on them in some time. He brings a hand down on the desk to hide the clumsiness of the movement. “But all I care to tell you now.”

“Nevertheless, it seems she has surpassed me in all ways.”

“She did,” agrees Oralech.

“But you joined us nonetheless.”

“I did.”

“Then you have shown more grace than I in my ambitions ever could,” admits Volfred, he would shut his eyes, but he dares not lose Oralech in his sight. The wonder at seeing him alive hasn’t worn off. “You have my deepest gratitude for that. For what that may be worth to you.”

Oralech scoffs as he fiddles with a letter opener. “Not much. It was not so difficult a thing as you think. You needed a demon, did you not? For them to believe us the Scribes reborn, for them to march beside us for a new future. To shake the hearts of those Justices, who would fall to their knees or to the Downside at the very sight of us. These horns are a bane to me, but just as well they serve in my favor for once. I am no Soliam Murr, but it was, it seems, close enough.”

He places the letter opener, very pointedly, back on the desk. Volfred barely follows the movement. His pipe sits forgotten in his hand.

“You remembered,” he says, distantly.

“Was I ever one to forget?”

“No,” says Volfred, “but you owed me very little on that count.”

Here a ghost of a smirk twitches at the corner of Oralech’s scarred lips. “True,” he says. “I owed you nothing, but this damnable Plan was never your idea alone. Or have you forgotten?”

“Never, not for a single day--” Volfred stops himself. He snuffs out his pipe and lays it on the desk. “...but when the Reader offered me my freedom, I did not say no. The truth of that is very plain. I took it before you had yours.”

“Through no influence of your own, no doubt.”

“I placed my love for my country above my love for you.”

“That, too,” agrees Oralech. “Though I never doubted you would.”

It’s a cruel truth, but a necessary one. Faced with it, Volfred crosses an arm over his chest and kneels. His trunk creaks from the motion. He rests himself at Oralech’s feet, in the position that was ever forced upon the exiles, before they were sentenced to the Downside, as the Justices read out their crimes and their fate.

“Whether or not I was complicit in your betrayal,” says Volfred, “I must admit you have every reason to doubt me now. I have accomplished all I have set out to do, and you have returned by another’s mercy, and, even despite all that, you saw all of this through to the end. There is nothing I can say or do that can return what was taken from you -- what I have taken from you, whether from intent or from inaction.”

“Inaction,” says Oralech, tilting his head. “They chant your name in the streets.”

“And they ought to be chanting yours as well,” says Volfred, not looking up. “By right. It would be selfish of me to ask for your forgiveness, but know at least that I long for it. Cast that longing down at your leisure. You are owed at least that much, if not more.”

“Cast it down…” Oralech stares down at him. He stares for a good long while.

Then, after a moment, his hooves scrape along the carpet. Volfred feels a clawed hand settle over his shoulder. Oralech kneels across from him, raiments pooling around him. It’s not the most comfortable of positions for a demon, and much his weight is braced against Volfred -- but he manages it.

“Enough of this performance,” says Oralech. “The only thing you took from me from me was my wagon...”

Volfred glances up despite himself, and very nearly bumps into Oralech’s horns.

“Ah. The Blackwagon,” says Volfred, nearly sheepishly. “I admit I did take my liberties with it. That I’m afraid, will not be so easy to replace--”

“...and nothing else,” finishes Oralech, talking over him.

Volfred stops, the demon’s meaning finally clear to him. Oralech drags him to his feet by the back of his tunic. They stand together in the quiet office, eyes level. There was a time when Volfred would have had to look down at him, when Oralech was wholly human, and unscarred by the mountain. An Oralech who smiled with wryness rather than bitterness -- though as he crosses his arms in the present, there’s nothing bitter about his smirk just then: Satisfied and utterly at Volfred’s expense.

“Then you haven’t come for justice.”

“Not especially, no,” says Oralech, “though your apology was as eloquent as expected. If my mind hadn’t already been set, it might have swayed me. You did put some thought into it.”

It’s been in the back of Volfred’s mind since the Shimmer-Pool engulfed him, but he doesn’t say that just then.

“I suppose I deserved that,” he says instead, and there is such an unexpected warmth in Oralech’s answering laugh he nearly forgets himself entirely. “What convinced you?”

“Your shadow showed me the truth of it,” says Oralech. “As I hesitated on that wretched peak. Hesitated! After I won my freedom twice over! And yet, with her own freedom in the balance, she reached for me, and she showed me. I know what is in your heart.”

“I would show you,” says Volfred, “if you would have me.”

“Your word is enough,” says Oralech, “but I would like to see it, all the same.”

Volfred reaches for him. Oralech lets him. Volfred doesn’t find the storm that once clouded his heart. but rather a quiet place, like a lake on a full moon, or perhaps a clear pool atop the mountain, once which swallows starlight and all else.

(Ah, it’s calm here…)

(Yes.)

(Does it hurt?)

(Not anymore.)

He stays there a moment, the silence cool and comforting rather than desolate, and then Volfred opens his own mind in turn. His is not so spacious. Volfred Sandalwood’s mind is a thick bramble. A mess of roots which intertwine and worm their way into everything. Nothing ever means one thing. Nothing ever has one course. Nevertheless Oralech walks it with confidence, he doesn’t trip on the roots or get caught in the branches.

(As cluttered as ever, Volfred.)

(You know I cannot help myself.)

(No, it is your nature.)

And though Oralech was never a full reader, he reads Volfred all the same. Here in this branch he finds satisfaction and pride. Here he finds the revolutionary zeal. Here he finds dreams and promises. Here he also finds confusion, pain, and loneliness. Here he finds the great grief which had once threatened to swallow everything. The grief which consumed years. The bitter search through the mountain valley which ended when the winter grew too fierce. The heavy years alone in the glade, and, after it, the flames renewed. For if there was nothing to bury, he would at least make sure the idea did not die. He would tend that flame as they tended it in life…

(Flattering. But you would have gone on regardless.)

(Perhaps. But I went on for you.)

(One of the reasons, I suppose.)

(One of them.)

(Reason enough.)

There’s no condemnation in that thought. Only affection, mild exasperation, and acceptance. And Volfred opens his eyes, his hand spread across Oralech’s scarred cheek. His thumb follows one of those scars, studying it, aching at it, and Oralech lets him take his face in his hands.

“...It is good to see you again. I never thought I would in this lifetime,” he murmurs. “Would that I could have said it sooner.”

“It might have saved us some time,” allows Oralech, leaning closer. His hair falls over them like a curtain, brittle and bright like snow under the moon. “But, then again, I was very angry. You have said it now, and that’s enough.”

“Will you stay?” asks Volfred. He doesn’t mean for the words to break at the end, but they do.

“Good. You asked. Yes.” And Oralech kisses him. Once on the forehead, then on the lips, and then again, and again. He doesn’t leave.

 

“Did he kill him?” asks Rukey. “Think he killed him? I mean, is he allowed to? This ain’t the rites…”

“Sandalwood would have raised an alarm if he tried that…” Hedwyn frowns. It’s been long enough someone has lit an extra set of lamps in the hall, and the inner chambers are proofed against most sound, save the summoning bell.

“Would he try that?” asks Fikani.

“I don’t know,” admits Hedwyn. Something about this idea leaves Ti’zo particularly incensed, because he flies straight into Hedwyn’s face, fluttering in protest.

“SKRII kikikii HRYOOM,” snaps Ti’zo. There’s no one on hand to translate, but he gets the point across well enough.

“I’m sorry, my friend,” says Hedwyn, leaning back from the battering of the imp’s wings. “You’d know better than I.”

“Hryooom,” mutters Ti’zo, indicating his concern, regardless.

The students glance at the door and weigh their options. They didn’t have to weigh them for long after that, the doors opened at last, producing Volfred -- very much alive. The demon steps out beside him, his own arms folded into the sleeves of his raiments, and a mysterious smirk across his lips.

“I am sorry to have kept you all waiting,” says Volfred, his arms folded neatly behind his back. “We had some matters to discuss. My friends, please welcome former Chief Physician Oralech. He has decided to join our cause. I believe his knowledge will be invaluable to the new challenges before us.”

The confusion in the hall is palpable. Some of the students exchange glances. Some of the students lower their weapons with reluctance. One or two, Hedwyn included, salute with cautious respect.

“What?” barks Rukey. “Just like that?!”

Ti’zo launches off of Hedwyn’s shoulder with enough strength to make the man wince. His target, to everyone’s surprise, isn’t Volfred. He barrels full pelt into the demon’s chest. Oralech holds out an arm for him to fall into.

“Yes, little one, I am back,” says Oralech, and if his smirk is a bit cat in the cream, no one dares to comment. “Sandalwood has his way with words after all.”